News Analysis: Study Looks at Long-term Health Effects of Smog

A study just released by the New England Journal of Medicine is the first national study to look at the long-term impacts of smog on human health. The Allegheny Front's news analyst, Ann Murray, joins Matthew Craig to discuss the sobering results of this report.

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OPEN: A study just released by the New England Journal of Medicine is the first national study to look at the long-term impacts of smog on human health. The Allegheny Front's news analyst, Ann Murray, is here to discuss the sobering results of this report. It's estimated that† 1 in 3 people in the US live in cities with unhealthy levels of ground'level ozone.

M: Essentially the study links smog exposure to premature death. Are people in some areas more vulnerable than others?

A: Yes. The study found that people are three times more likely to die from respiratory illness in metropolitan areas with the highest concentration of ozone-the main component of smog - than people living cities with the lowest concentration.

M: How is this study any different than other studies that connect health problems to smog?

A: It's the first study to offer proof that people in high ozone concentration areas die from respiratory illnesses.† Not only is it the first study to look at the longitudinal or longterm effects of smog, it's the first analysis to pull apart the impacts of smog from other kinds of air pollution like soot or particulates.

M: Who participated in the study?

A: It was a joint project between Canadian and US universities and health organizations like the American Cancer Society.

M: How was study set up?

A:Data from an American Cancer Society study were compared with air pollution data form 96 metro areas in the US, including Pittsburgh. The scientist looked at data from almost a half million people †in an 18 year follow up period. †During that time about 120,000 people died.

M: What period of time did they collect the information on ozone concentrations?

A: It was from April to September in 1977 through 2000.†

M: Why those months?

A:Those months are when ozone concentrations are highest.

M: Ozone is a tricky pollutant to talk about because it depends on where it's located. What's the difference between good and bad ozone?

A: High level ozone helps to block the harmful rays of the sun but low level ozone, more commonly known as smog can hurt people and plant life. It comes from car emissions, coal-fired utilities and other industries and can cause throat irritations and coughing to asthma and heart problems.

M:† What basic changes do the authors of the study recommend?

A: By making this long-term assessment, authors say there's a need to change the way health and environmental agencies deal with ozone.†† Other reports have shown short-term spikes in respiratory illnesses like asthma and heart attacks - but this study shows that the government can't just worry about the really bad ozone days. Agencies have to look at cumulative exposure to smog over the years.

M: So do the current EPA standards for smog stop the cumulative impacts of this kind of pollution?

A: The scientists who released this report don't believe that the current eight hour standards protect people from the impacts of breathing smog over time.

M: EPA smog standards were just changed last year under the Bush administration. Why were these standards the subject of so much criticism?

A: The EPA's own scientists said the standards weren't stringent enough but industry argued that the 2008 standards were too tough.

M: The Obama administration might revamp the controversial Bush-era smog standards. What's being discussed?

A: The Obama administration has just asked a federal appeals court to hold off on a court ruling about the 2008 smog regulations so scientists in their agencies can examine the implications of this latest ruling.

M: Will this study be used as evidence that the 2008 standard has to be tougher?

A: Environmental groups say the study proves what they've been saying all along: that EPA under former President Bush ignored their own scientists and was unduly influenced by industry. Given the new evidence, advocates will likely push for a new "annual average" standard that aims to shrink the overall impact of smog.

M: Thanks, Ann.

A: You're welcome.