Five Air Pollution Stories You Might Have Missed in 2010

Another year has gone by, and air pollution is still making big news. The following stories represent just a smattering of the news that we’ve read over the year regarding air pollution and its impact on human health. Air pollution continues to be a serious, ongoing problem – not only in Texas, but also around the world. If you don’t have time to read all of the stories individually, just skim the headlines – you’ll get the gist. And revisit this blog in January, when I suggest solutions in the form of resolutions.

1. In China, Pollution Worsens Despite New Efforts [New York Times, registration required]. Rapid industrial growth has resulted in increased air pollution. One of the worst offenders is particulate matter, or fine dust, which when inhaled, tends to lodge deeply in the lungs, making them vulnerable to respiratory problems and others diseases like cancer. According to this story, the “average concentration of particulates in [Bejing’s] air violated the World Health Organization’s standards more than 80 percent of the time during the last quarter of 2008.” In addition, acid rain has become a problem in nearly half of the cities monitored. As if this weren’t bad enough news, a related article last week cites how pollution harms the economy as well: Hong Kong’s 2010 Pollution Level Is Worst on Record, Hurting City’s Image.

2. Proximity to freeways increases autism risk, study finds [LA Times]. Mentioned in my blog last week, this story covers a recent study suggesting a possible link between autism and children born of mothers living close to a freeway during the third trimester. While 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,” she does state that it could be one of the factors “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. Given that it has been estimated that 11 percent of the U.S. population lives within 100 meters of a four-lane highway, the public health implications of this study are far-reaching.

3. Smog may add to diabetes risk [USA Today]. Researchers from the Children’s Hospital in Boston report a strong link between adult diabetes and air pollution. This means that if you live in a city known for smog, your chances are higher for developing diabetes. Researchers highlighted the role of particulate matter typically found in haze and vehicle exhaust, citing that for every 10 microgram per cubic meter rise in fine particulate matter a 1 percent increase in diabetes rates. In April, I blogged about the American Lung Association’s Annual State of the Air Report and that 21 of the 36 Texas counties studied in the report received an F for having too many high ozone (the main component in smog) days. Houston was the seventh most ozone-polluted city in the country.

4. Pittsburgh Region at risk: Can higher rates of death be linked to air pollution? [Pittsburgh Post-Gazette] This article, also mentioned in my blog last week, 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.”

5. Air pollutant tied to birth defect: Study shows women who live in areas with high levels of benzene are most affected [Houston Chronicle]. A study suggested that when pregnant women were exposed to high concentrations of benzene, they had “two times greater risk for their children to be born with spina bifida — a condition in which a piece of the spinal cord protrudes from the spinal column.” The article points out that Texas leads the nation in benzene releases, accounting for more than one-third of emissions among the states. In Texas it's cause for concern because state regulators don't consider chronic benzene concentrations less than 4.5 micrograms per cubic meter of air to be hazardous enough to affect health. Recently, I blogged about high benzene emissions in Houston resulting from “upset” emissions, with an implied finding that it’s cheaper for companies to pay penalties than prevent pollution.

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