It’s great when conferences at least post the powerpoint presentations! Thanks, Clean Air Council and everyone involved! I am using some of these sources for a paper I am writing!
Gary Polakovic, a former environmental writer for the Los Angeles Times, recently published a very worthy commentary comparing the Gulf oil disaster to air pollution. You can read it here. Basically, he is making the point that people are (rightly) upset about the gulf disaster, but are not as concerned as they should be about air pollution; a more widespread and long-term problem. Air pollution is an environmental disaster far worse than the Gulf oil disaster. Even when BP has stopped the oil from leaking, we are still polluting the air.
Here are just a few statistics that Gary uses to illustrate his point:
“Worst-case estimates place the total oil spilled in the gulf at about 126 million gallons over two months. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates the country disgorges that much hydrocarbon pollution to the air in 10 days.”
I wanted to echo Gary’s sentiment because this issue is at the core of my work everyday at the Clean Air Council. The U.S. and the world need to recognize just how much damage we are doing to our own health (increasing rates of pollution related diseases: asthma, cardiovascular diseases, cancer, diabetes, etc), the health of our children and grandchildren, and the extent to which we are jeopardizing the future of the human race.
*The World Health Organization estimates that 20 million people die prematurely due to air pollution. – Article on air pollution increasing in developing countries.
The Lancet is currently featuring a new research and publication series that examines public health and global warming. There is still disagreement on whether or not global warming exists, and if it does, whether or not it is caused by human activity. As that argument has persisted concerns about how human activity impacts our immediate health has come to the forefront.
The same types of air pollution that are believed to cause global warming are known to cause and exacerbate diseases like asthma, cardiovascular disease and cancer. If governments are dragging their heels in disbelief about global warming maybe they need to take a look at the current rates of these diseases and the economic health costs associated with air pollution. Asthma alone is estimated to cost the U.S. $18 Billion, annually.
Reducing air pollution will not only help prevent climate change, but has an almost immediate positive impact on the health and well being of the entire human race, and reduces the economic burden accrued from pollution-related diseases. The public health benefits garnered from reducing air pollution are just as relevant as keeping the planet healthy. Even if you don’t believe in man-made global warming there are still plenty of reasons to reduce our energy consumption and emissions.
Onwards, to the future!
The production and usage of energy is accompanied by “hidden costs” such as the health care needs that results from the use of these energy sources. For example, coal may be cheap, but using it to produce electricity causes respiratory illness, impacts cardiovascular disease, etc, which puts unnecessary strain on our health care system, our economy, and has a negative impact on our collective health, productivity and quality of life. Currently, the prices of oil, coal, natural gas, wind, solar, nuclear power etc do not reflect the health effects imposed by their production and usage.
That is about to change thanks to a new report from the National Research Council. The NRC, which serves to “improve government decision making and public policy, increase public education and understanding, and promote the acquisition and dissemination of knowledge in matters involving science, engineering, technology, and health”, has taken account of the hidden health costs associated with the production and usage of various forms of energy. The report found that in 2005 the United States incurred $250 billion dollars in hidden costs associated with energy production and use. The majority of the cost can be attributed to “health damages from air pollution associated with electricity generation and motor vehicle transportation”.
These reports provide policy makers with a more complete picture of the advantages and disadvantages associated with particular energy sources. It seems the government is starting to take a more holistic view of our energy usage, and the state of national health and economy.
As statistics like these become more visible and pertinent, the reasons to support clean energy mount (and the continued use of dirty energies starts to seem, well, idiotic).
Reasons to use and support clean energy, like wind and solar:
2. Minimal negative impact on health and environment.
3. Reduces dependence on foreign oil supplies (increases national security and national independence).
4. Could support manufacturing sector in the United States, creating jobs, supporting the economy.
5. Sets a good example for the rest of the world/helps re-establish the U.S. as a legitimate leader in the global community.
Reasons to continue supporting and using dirty energy, like coal and oil:
1. It is too risky to invest in clean energies when the economy is in a fragile state (??)
It may cost more in the short-term to support new energy technologies. But, in the long-term making these difficult decisions can ultimately serve our greater interests in public health, the economy and national security. As we move forward (the U.S. and humans as a whole), it will be interesting to see if research like this is put to use, in policy formation and decision-making (governmental and public/individual).
Let’s take ozone for example. Ozone is cheekily described as “good up high, bad nearby”. In other words, ozone in the atmosphere is a good thing because it filters dangerous solar UV radiation, but ozone at ground-level is unfavorable because it is toxic to the body, causing coughing, respiratory inflammation, chest pain, etc, and can contribute to health issues such as asthma and cardiovascular disease.
What I find to be particularly interesting are studies like Devlin et al. (1997) that provide insight into the variety and complexity of the body’s responses to specific pollutants.
First, a little background information. When a toxic substance enters the body our immune system responds with a myriad of cellular and molecular changes (represented by the presence of “markers”) that are meant to neutralize or minimize the threat posed by the substance. These changes can be measured, and thus a substance can be identified as dangerous to the body because it elicits certain biological responses.
Inflammation is one example of an immune system response to a potential threat. Many studies use measurements of cell markers of inflammation in fluid inside the lungs to find out if a substance is toxic. However, inflammation markers are not the only measure of how much of a threat something poses to our bodies. For example, Devlin et al. also measured a marker called lactate dehydrogenase, an enzyme released when cell are injured or die.
Interestingly, some markers (eg. inflammation markers) stopped appearing after extended ozone exposure, in other words their response was attenuated. This suggests that the body stops responding negatively to ozone. So the question remained, “IS OZONE BAD FOR US?”.
But, other markers, namely lactate dehydrogenase did not attenuate, and was found to be present throughout elongated and repeated exposures to ozone. This suggests that ozone does continue to damage the body.
I am no cellular or molecular biologist, so bare with me. But, from what I gather, these variations in response at the cellular and molecular level hint at the complexity of the immune system. Now I am sure others have a better explanation, but for my own sake I would like to offer one possible explanation for the observed differences in inflammation and lactate dehydrogenase response and say that it is partly a function of limited resources and demand. This isn’t supposed to be economics, so let me explain.
The fact that inflammation markers are found to attenuate after repeated exposures suggests to me that the immune system is capable of re-allocating those resources in the face of inescapable adversity. Put another way, the immune system is often talked about as a sense organ and can make “decisions” based on the sensory input. In this example, the immune system detects a threat to the body (ozone) and the body initiates it’s first line immune response, inflammation. Since the exposure to ozone did not abate, and inflammation is an entirely ineffective response to ozone (granted inflammation is great at neutralizing an infection, but inflammation doesn’t do much to stop or protect us from ozone), the immune system “knew” to withdraw/attenuate the inflammation response. In this way the immune system does not employ brut force methods to dealing with toxins, but has the ability to try a certain approach and sensing whether or not it is working, and if not, then it stops using that approach. Very cool!
Not so cool was that the researchers found that the participants cells continued to release lactate dehydrogenase, indicating that the cells were still injured during both acute and long-term exposure to ozone. What this suggests then is that while ozone may not pose a long-term threat to our health via extended periods of inflammation (which can lead to disease such as asthma and cancer), one way or another ozone does continue to injure the cells that make up the lining in our lungs. Thus, ozone needs to be avoided and the levels of it in our environments should be reduced.
I think this sort of research is interesting but also very important for human health in general. We need to continue to investigate how various chemical compounds impact our bodies. A great area of uncertainty stems from the rise of nano technology and molecular manufacturing. There are many unanswered questions about whether or not these synthetic materials that are built on a molecular level will pose health threats, particularly to our respiratory system and immune system. I bet we will see a surge of research in these areas in the coming years.