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Our nation's clean water policy should provide all communities with access to healthy, safe water by protecting the streams and wetlands that contribute to our drinking water supply.

PSR Co-Launches Clean Air Promise Campaign

Statement from Peter Wilk, MD

July 26, 2011
Author: Peter Wilk, MD

Air pollution is damaging America’s health.  It is hurting people, and it is killing people.

I’m a doctor; I’m also the father of an asthmatic son.  Like too many Americans, I know about asthma attacks first-hand.  Asthma is at epidemic levels today:  An estimated 20 million Americans suffer from asthma – that’s 1 in 15.  It is one of this country's most common and costly diseases. What many people don’t know is that one of the major triggers of asthma is air pollution.  Specifically, ozone:  a pollutant that forms from common air pollutants (nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds) in the presence of heat and sunlight.  That’s why we get ozone alerts in the summer, like in the heat wave we’ve been sweating through.  And where do nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds come from?  They are emitted in the pollution emitted by cars and coal-fired power plants.

Asthma is painful, very frightening, and it can be life-threatening – in fact, 11 people die from asthma in this country every day.  But it’s only one serious health impact from air pollution.  In fact, air pollution is responsible for even more dangerous health effects. 

  • Not surprisingly, since we breathe it in, air pollution causes or contributes to many serious respiratory diseases, or diseases of the lung.  These include chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), chronic bronchitis, emphysema, and lung cancer.  Many of these are caused by to particulate air pollution – particles which enter and lodge deep in the lungs.  These particles may be visible as soot – or they may be so small, they are visible only with a high-powered microscope.  But it’s a clear case of “what you can’t see, can hurt you.”  It can even kill you.  The smallest particles are able to penetrate most deeply into the lungs.  As many as 24,000 adults die prematurely each year due to particulate matter in the air. 
  • Many people don’t realize that air pollution also damages the cardiovascular system – the heart and arteries.  Pollutants have been shown to lead to arterial occlusion (blockage of arteries, leading to heart attacks) and infarct formation (tissue death due to oxygen deprivation, leading to permanent heart damage).  Air pollutants are also associated with arrhythmia – cardiac rhythm disturbances that are potentially fatal.
  • In addition to the heart and lungs, pollution also affects the nervous system, especially the brain.  The same mechanisms that affect the arteries around the heart also apply to the arteries that nourish the brain.  This can lead to stroke. 

The brain is also damaged by mercury, an air pollutant generated by burning coal in coal-fired power plants.  Mercury falls out of the air with rain, flows into rivers and lakes, and enters the food chain.  Mercury is a major neurotoxin, causing neurological and development impairments and lifelong loss of intelligence. 

In addition to hurting our health, air pollution is also driving up health care costs.  Did you know that in 2005, nearly 1.8 million emergency room visits were attributed to asthma?  If we had cleaned up our air, many of those visits would have been prevented.  Think of the cost savings, as well as the unnecessary days lost from school and from work, if we enjoyed clean air in this country.

As a doctor, I have to think about prevention, as well as treatment and cures.  So it’s important to know, Where does this dangerous air pollution come from?  Most of it comes from just a few types of polluters:  coal-fired power plants; industrial boilers; cement kilns; cars.  That’s good news, because we already know how to slash the pollution coming from these sources.  What’s needed is the willingness to step up and say:  Enough.  It’s our health -- our children’s health, our families’, our neighbors’, our own.  None of us should have to bear the pain, and sometimes the terrible loss, inflicted by air pollution. 

For that reason, Physicians for Social Responsibility is proud to step up as a participant in the Clean Air Promise Campaign.  We have adapted the Promise just a little bit so that our members, as doctors, nurses and other health professionals, can make their own, medical promise: 

 “As a health professional, I promise to protect America's children and families from dangerous air pollution. 

“Air toxics and pollutants cause – every year –thousands of asthma attacks, hospital admissions, cases of lung disease, damage to infants’ and children’s developing brains, cancers, and deaths.

“This is too high a price for the American people to pay. 

As a health professional, I will support clean air policies and other protections that scientists and public health professionals have recommended to the EPA to safeguard our air quality.”

Thank you.

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