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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 American people.

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 air.

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 Americans.

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. 

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