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Air Pollution and Our Health

Posted by April Avant on May 3, 2011

Nearly half of Americans live an area which is heavily polluted, the American Lung Association stated in their annual State of the Air Report released last week. What does this mean? The roughly 157 million people living in these areas are at a high risk for asthma, respiratory disease and premature death.

Most cities have shown improvement from last year’s report, but how much of an improvement is it if nearly half of us are breathing air that is harming our health?

The cleanup of our polluted air, instituted under the Clean Air Act, has been ongoing for over forty years. The Clean Air Act has been a public health success. The EPA states that the Act has prevented nearly 160,000 premature deaths. Currently, it is under fire, as Congress reevaluates the controls in place for clean air and public health.

In defense of the Clean Air Act, this week Physicians for Social Responsibility is hosting health professionals from around the nation to speak out for the Clean Air Act in Washington DC.

Coal-fired power plants are a major source of air pollution in the US. They release 84 different pollutants into the air including mercury, arsenic, formaldehyde and dioxins, making them among the largest contributors to particulate pollution, global warming and ozone. These pollutants cause a range of health effects: respiratory infections, lung diseases, asthma attacks and heart attacks. Currently, the US has 440 operating power plants in 46 states, and the energy that is produced from coal powers about half the nation. 

Other sources of air pollution include diesel trucks that deliver our goods, and the cars or SUVs that we drive every day. Along with the coal plants that light our homes, these sources cause particle pollution, and ozone formation. Particle pollution is a cocktail of solid materials and gases, many of which are smaller than the diameter of a strand of hair. You can see it in the exhaust from cars and the smokestacks of industrial buildings; in other cases the particles are so small as to be invisible to the naked eye.

The harm caused by particulate matter includes respiratory diseases such as chronic bronchitis and asthma; along with heart attacks strokes and cancer. Recent studies show that particle pollution alone causes an estimated 60,000 deaths a year. A recent study in California, the state with the most polluted cities in the nation, estimates that 9,200 people die annually in the state from breathing in particle pollution. Some of the main causes were heart attacks, strokes, cancer and heart disease.

Ozone, in particular ground-level ozone, is formed when nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds (VOC) interact with heat and sunlight. Ozone is linked to lung cancer and also can harm the respiratory and cardiovascular system. Highly-polluted areas place those with preexisting lung conditions, elderly and children most at risk for developing cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, as well as lung cancer.

Although most cities and counties have shown improvement since the last report release in 2010, there is still a long way to go. The push-back from some policymakers puts our health at risk. It is estimated that by 2020 the Clean Air Act will prevent over 200,000 premature deaths.

This week PSR is hosting health professionals from a dozen states across the nation to speak out in Washington DC, in support of the Clean Air Act. My next blog will feature interviews from some of our participating health professionals about air pollution, the Clean Air Act and what it can continue to do for us and our environment.

For more information on air pollution and our health please visit us at

If you would like to see the state of your air, use the American Lung Association’s interactive map at


American Lung Association, "State of the Air Report: 2011", April 2011.

Kirsten Welker- Hood, ScD, MSN RN, Barbara Gottlieb, John Suttles, JD, LLM, Molly Rauch, MPH,  "The Clean Air Act: A Proven Tool for Healthy Air", Physicians for Social Responsibility, April 2011.

Alan H. Lockwood, MD FAAN, Kristen Welker- Hood, SCD MSN RN, Molly Rauch, MPH, Barbara Gottlieb, "Coal'sAssault on Human Health: An Executive Summary" , Physicians for Social Responsibility, November 2009.



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