Taking air pollution to heart

By Pam Boschee

With cardiovascular disease tightening its death grip as America’s No. 1 killer, an article published in January’s issue of Epidemiology, the journal of The International Society of Environmental Epidemiology, is sure to capture attention in our industry.

In a study partially funded by EPRI, Emory University researchers concluded that patient visits to the emergency room for cardiovascular problems appear to be correlated with air pollution–especially levels of carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and carbon-containing particles (also referred to as particulate matter).

Researchers studied patient information from 31 Atlanta hospitals for a period of two years (1998-2000) covering nearly two million emergency department visits. These included 40,000 visits by patients with cardiovascular problems.

The researchers compared the timing of the ER visits with air quality data for a number of key pollutants collected at a monitoring site in Atlanta. ER visits were higher when levels of carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, fine particulates (PM2.5), organic carbon, elemental carbon, and oxygenated hydrocarbons were elevated. The strongest correlation with ER visits were found with carbon monoxide, followed by carbon-containing particles.

Although motor vehicles contribute more than 50 percent of carbon monoxide (according to the EPA), particulate matter and nitrogen oxide are emitted from electric generators. Coal combustion contributes to particulate matter levels and natural gas combustion contributes to nitrogen oxide levels.

A correlational study does not conclusively prove causality. However, more studies of this type are in progress, and researchers are striving to fine-tune the identification of the chemicals and particulates that may be triggering these health effects. Until recently, few studies have considered particulate matter.

The financial burden of cardiovascular disease to our society as a whole is staggering. The Centers for Disease Control project the cost of heart disease and stroke in the U.S. to be $368 billion in 2004, including health care expenditures and lost productivity from death and disability.

The politics of health care initiatives and environmental quality will certainly make strange bedfellows. When the No. 1 killer becomes definitively linked to any industry, you’d better watch out. Someone’s going to get booted out of the bed.

Pam Boschee, Managing Editor

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