Scientists who’ve linked air pollution with serious respiratory illness and death are condemning Republican efforts to undermine the federal Clean Air Act.
About 3 percent of all deaths nationwide each year are associated with periods of serious air pollution, so thousands of lives could be at risk if the clean-air laws are rolled back, the researchers say.
“This is not a trivial public health concern. We now know the problems caused by air pollution are far worse than we had initially anticipated,” said Joel Schwartz of the Harvard School of Public Health.
Schwartz is a lead researcher in studies from 17 cities that show when pollution levels rise, more people are hospitalized with respiratory distress - and more deaths occur within the next few days.
He is part of a team studying the tiniest dust particles in Spokane’s air and their connection to deaths and hospital admissions.
The tiny particles go deep into the lungs, where they can cause lung damage or carry toxic metals into the blood stream.
At an international conference this week of the American Thoracic Society and the American Lung Association, Schwartz and his colleagues blasted GOP efforts to roll back pollution limits in the Clean Air Act.
A bill introduced by Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, is “one of the most irresponsible pieces of legislation introduced this year,” said Dr. Alfred Munzer, immediate past president of the American Lung Association.
DeLay’s bill would repeal 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act that require cutting in half emissions of sulfur dioxide, blamed for acid rain and particulate pollution.
“We have in the last five years found very strong evidence to suggest these pollutants are associated with adverse health effects, and it would be criminal to have the legislation repealed,” Munzer said.
A staffer for Rep. DeLay said the congressman agrees the Clean Air Act has done a great deal to clean up the nation’s air, but that additional regulations should be left to the states.
“It’s not that Congressman DeLay favors pollution,” spokesman Jim Lafferty said. “He just feels that much of the regulation to eliminate pollution has not been done very well.”
Another DeLay staffer said the issue isn’t whether pollution is bad.
“The issue is how to take care of that problem - if it should be a centrally commanded and controlled federalized program, or if it should be handled at the state and local level,” said the staff member.
Schwartz estimated the Clean Air Act amendments could save 10,000 to 15,000 lives per year - not counting reductions in hospital admissions or additional health savings from reducing pollution levels.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is considering tightening its standard for particulate pollution.
“There is continuing evidence that the current (particulate) standards aren’t protecting public health,” said Jane Koenig, a University of Washington researcher coordinating the Spokane particle study.
Two new studies presented at the conference provide more evidence of a link between pollution levels and either hospital admissions or deaths.
One evaluated death rates and pollution levels in New York, Atlanta, Houston, St. Louis, Chicago, Detroit, Minneapolis, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
The second study, conducted by Schwartz, compared pollution rates with hospital admissions in New Haven, Conn., and Tacoma. It found a possible link between health risk and climate.
Tacoma has a milder climate than New Haven, meaning “you’re more likely to be outdoors, you’re more likely to have windows open, you’re less likely to have the air conditioner on,” said Schwartz, who conducted the study.
While the researchers said the air pollution in New Haven was worse, hospital admissions for respiratory diseases increased more steeply in Tacoma than New Haven when pollution worsened.
The following fields overflowed: BYLINE = Karen Dorn Steele Staff writer The Associated Press contributed to this report.