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"This data makes an airtight case that we need a stronger Federal standard to control pollution." That’s what Dr. Philip Landrigan of the Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York told the New York Times about a new air emissions study. Now, if you know anything about Landrigan, you know that to him everything makes an airtight case for a stronger federal standard to control pollution. But as they say, even a broken clock is right twice a day. Perhaps this is the good doctor’s day. The study in question, authored by C. Arden Pope of Brigham Young University and several other researchers, looked at 151 U.S. cities. It found a relationship between cities with high levels of sulfates and fine particles in the air and premature deaths in those cities. Sulfates come primarily from coal-burning power plants and diesel exhaust, while fine particles come from a variety of sources ranging from power plants to automobile exhaust to even dust from fields. The study could have important ramifications, since the EPA appears to be working on a new standard for particulate emissions. This Pope can be trusted.
Both Pope and the second author of the paper, the American Cancer Society’s Michael Thun, admitted the slightness of increase was problematic. But they said that they felt the study did a very good job in controlling variables. In fact, they did not look at several important factors, including diet. They did control for "body mass index" (scientific terminology for how fat people are), but that results from a wide combination of dietary and exercise habits. It is no substitute for checking what people ate. Yet for decades it has been known there is a powerful relationship between diet and cardiopulmonary disease. More recently it has also become clear that diet can affect a number of cancers, including lung cancer. One published study found that women with the highest saturated fat consumption had six times the lung cancer rate of women with the lowest level. Climate may not have been adequately taken into account, either. Essentially when we talk about increased deaths from air pollution, we’re talking about the elderly or people who were already ill with something. These people always die in much greater numbers during extremes of heat and cold. Did the Pope study account for this? Yes, but perhaps not adequately. Indeed, even now Pope is working with University of Delaware climatologist Larry Kalkstein to develop an improved method for controlling for climate. Pope and Thun acknowledge their study’s limitations, but say it needs to be seen in context of other studies connecting the pollutants in question to various health effects, including shortness of breath, respiratory symptoms, and hospitalizations from respiratory symptoms. But these may have no connection to death. Further, the greatest claim to importance of the current study is that it is so much larger and more carefully done than those previous ones. But the case for "regulate now, asks questions later" is even worse. Sulfates are not generally considered a risk factor for disease, and while fine particles theoretically could promote lung cancer, remember that this study found no such connection. What’s going on here? Explains Pope, "Both fine particle and sulfates are used as proxy for combustion source pollution in general." Thus it’s possible that industry and consumers could spend billions to reduce sulfates and fine particles and actually not reduce whatever was actually causing harm. This study may prove valuable in some way, but for now hardly provides an "airtight" or any other case for massive government-mandated expenditures. Will the EPA take all of this into account when they seek to implement new, tighter regulations? Don’t hold your breath.