Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee Press Briefing
September 21, 2011
Comments by Dr. Peter Wilk, Executive Director of Physicians
for Social Responsibility
As we heard today, asthma is painful, very frightening, and
it can be life-threatening – in fact, 11 people die from asthma in this country every day. But as a doctor, I have to say that
asthma is only one of many serious health impacts caused by air pollution. In fact, air pollution damages the lungs, the
heart, even the brain, and can cause serious harm and premature death.
First, and most obviously, 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 dangerous
diseases are caused by 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.” The smallest particles are able to penetrate
most deeply into the lungs and cause the most damage. As many as 24,000 adults die prematurely each
year due to particulate matter in the air.
- Each one of those premature deaths is an
unnecessary tragedy. We can prevent
those deaths by reducing particulate matter pollution. That’s why maintaining and strengthening air
pollution control measures, like the Clean Air Act, is so important for the
Many people don’t realize that air pollution also damages
the cardiovascular system – the heart and the arteries. Pollutants have been shown to lead to
arterial occlusion (that’s 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. Many people with heart disease
have no idea that their condition may be caused or worsened by breathing
polluted air. But it’s true.
- Given the huge number of people with
heart conditions, it’s a matter of life and death that the U.S. clean up the
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.
It’s not just the elderly who are affected by air pollution;
it’s also our children. The brain can be
severely damaged by mercury, an air pollutant released whenever we burn coal in
a coal-fired power plant. Mercury goes up
the smokestack into the air and falls out when it rains. It then flows into rivers and lakes and the
ocean, entering the food chain and ending up in fish that people eat -- the
major source of mercury exposure. You
need to understand that mercury is a major neurotoxin, causing neurological and
development impairments in the fetus – babies in the womb – and in infants and
small children. This means a lifelong
loss of intelligence for someone’s children.
And a corresponding loss of brain power for American society.
- Every time we roll back health protections, or delay
implementation, people suffer. They get
sick; their most basic organ systems are damaged; some die. Air pollution affects our children, the
elderly, people with existing respiratory problems, and people with existing
heart problems. That’s a lot of
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 this
dangerous air pollution comes 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. Air pollution abatement technologies already
exist – we can save these lives, we can prevent these illnesses.
The Clean Air Act is a law that has been
guiding this cleanup for 40 years. We
need to maintain it, continue it, expand it.
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.