Asthma Summit Experts Agree on Links Between Air Pollution and Health

  • To demonstrate the visual impact of varying air quality, the Breathe Project took these photos from above the Allegheny River on a morning when the region's air quality was relatively good (September 10, 2012, left) and when it was worse (September 11, 2012, right). Photo: Courtesy Breathe Project

May 10, 2013

Often when we report on air pollution, we point out that it’s especially toxic for vulnerable people like the very old or the very young. But this week, at an asthma summit organized by the Breathe Project in Pittsburgh, Ron White, from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said pollution can really cause serious problems for most of the rest of us, too.

“We’re understanding more information about who else is at risk," White said. "It’s not just sick people, it’s not just people that have acute, very serious heart disease and respiratory disease. It’s diabetics, it’s people that are probably obese, people with genetic polymorphisms that make them more at risk to air pollution.”

White recently completed a report for the Heinz Endowments called The Health Impacts of Pittsburgh Air Quality. It reviewed scientific studies from the last 30 years. The Heinz Endowments is also a major funder of The Allegheny Front.

Other speakers at the asthma summit shared data about the link between air pollution and things like low birth weights and even stress. A few of the experts said the scientific community has finally reached consensus that pollution really is a health problem. Francesca Dominici, a biostatistician with Harvard’s School of Public Health, explained this in a panel discussion.

“Twelve, thirteen years ago there was a lot of skepticism about health effects of air pollution," Dominici said. "It’s actually incredible not only in my own experience, but if I think about a lot of my colleagues. There has really been change in understanding the effects of pollution.”

Dominici said that the transition of scientific thinking is now focused on which regulatory measures work best.

Joel Schwartz, professor of environmental epidemiology at Harvard, has been working in the field since the 1980s. He said that lawmakers must summon the political will to put controls on all power plants and diesel engines with technology that is available now.

“Not doing it is the equivalent of withholding medication from people who need it to save their lives,” Schwartz said.

Yet it’s clear that despite a scientific consensus on the importance of preventing air pollution through power plant scrubbers, the energy industry and many politicians are not on the same page as those at the asthma summit.

The Environmental Protection Agency has been met with big resistance in trying to enact tougher air pollution rules. And just a couple days after the air summit in Pittsburgh, all of the Republican members of the Senate Committee for Environment and Public Works skipped a confirmation hearing for the EPA’s new secretary, Gina McCarthy, citing a lack of transparency at the agency. She currently heads the EPA's air pollution office and environmentalists see her as having a strong hand in that department.