Polluted air: The ‘heart’ of the problem

“‘We can no longer afford to consider air and water common property, free to be abused by anyone,’” espoused a determined Richard Nixon in one of his presidential speeches as conveyed in America Revealed, Episode 3: “ELECTRIC NATION,” a 2012 Public Broadcasting System presentation.

Question is: In hindsight, could air (and water) afford such a thing, ever?

At any rate, the discussion continued with “ELECTRIC NATION” show presenter Yul Kwon remarking: “With pressure from the growing environmental movement, President Richard Nixon signed the Clean Air Act of 1970 into law. It restricted emissions released into the air by big polluters like coal-fired power plants.”

Passage of this act was indeed both necessary and instrumental in cutting damaging air pollution levels here at home. But what about abroad?

Not just our problem

When it comes to doing battle with the air nemesis, no nation is an island, nor should that ever be the case. Pollution isn’t just an isolated problem – it’s everyone’s. As such, nothing short of a unified and concerted global effort to stop pollution will prove effective. Such cooperation worldwide is de rigueur.

Beijing Olympics: Healthy adults benefit from lower air pollution, too,” prepared by Kai Zhang and published Oct. 11, 2012 in Environmental Health News (an Environmental Health Sciences publication), is a synopsis of “Association between changes in air pollution levels during the Beijing Olympics and biomarkers of inflammation and thrombosis in healthy young adults,” by David Q. Rich, ScD., et al., and published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), likewise published in 2012. Across the globe, meanwhile, countless numbers are exposed to high concentrations or dangerous levels of air pollution. They number in the billions, according to Zhang. And the worst air pollution most affects cities with populations in excess of 10 million.

Effect on heart health

“Breathing air pollution can increase the risk for cardiovascular diseases, such as heart attacks and high blood pressure. Exposure to fine particulate matter – particles less than 2.5 micrometer in diameter (PM2.5) – is especially dangerous,” Zhang declared.

But the “underlying connections” between heart disease and poor air quality thus far “are not well understood,” he wrote.

Wrote Zhang: “For the 5-month study from June to November, the researchers recruited 125 resident doctors with an average age of 24 from a centrally located hospital. Half were male, and all were healthy with no history of diabetes or cardiovascular disease.”

Furthermore, prior to the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games being held, nearby factories shut down and area traffic was restricted.

That action had a direct influence on air quality improvement as emissions dropped a full 60 percent.

“At the same time,” according to Zhang, “the levels of two heart markers linked with cardiovascular disease improved in young, healthy adults, the study shows.

“When factory work and traffic returned to normal after the games, air pollution emissions rose rapidly and the levels of the heart health markers returned to previous levels.”

The research is compelling.

The takeaway and my understanding here is that young, healthy people exposed to unhealthy air can benefit from reductions in air pollution, even if said reductions are only short-term.

More importantly, finding long-term solutions for clearing the air of pollutants I believe is what matters most. If not, why the creation and implementation of any Clean Air Act at all?

– Alan Kandel