While we can debate all day about specific levels or exact factors actually harming our health, we seem to know on a general level that air pollution just isn’t a good thing to have around. Science is constantly evolving, and we are learning more every day about the hazards of pollution and the role that the environment has on our health. Recently, new reports on air pollution and disease have surfaced, providing more evidence that air quality may affect us even more than we thought.
Last week, researchers suggested a possible link between autism and children born of mothers living close to a freeway during the third trimester. Heather Volk, lead author of the paper published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, told the LA Times that the study “isn’t saying exposure to air pollution causes autism” but that “it could be one of the factors that are contributing to its increase.”
While more research is needed to ascertain the particular contributing factors, we have long known that diesel pollution, commonly found in the air near freeways, has been found to be harmful to human health. The trigger by which traffic-related air pollution affects respiratory and cardiovascular disease, and perhaps autism, is through inflammation and oxidative stress. Given that it has been estimated that 11 percent of the U.S. population lives within 100 meters of a four-lane highway, the implications for public health are far-reaching.
Another recent report appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “Region at Risk: Can Higher Rates of Death be Linked to Air Pollution?” documented that Southwestern Pennsylvania regional mortality rates were significantly higher than national rates when looking at causes of death from heart and respiratory disease and lung cancer – all diseases associated with air pollution.
Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection Secretary John Hanger is quoted in the article saying, “What the numbers show is that the science behind the Clean Air Act is very solid. Sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and soot are regulated because the real evidence is overwhelming that they can sicken and kill people.”
The underlying message from these reports?
Environmental factors like poor air quality need more attention – especially in Texas. We need more study, more monitoring, more discussion and more public awareness. Our health continues to be at risk otherwise.