Andover Townsman, Andover, MA

December 6, 2012

Column: Outdated standards don't protect us from soot

Barbara Kwetz Allan
The Andover Townsman

---- — I look out my kitchen window and see another glorious, crystal-clear day in Massachusetts, yet I know from my professional life that unseen, microscopic particles of air pollution are wreaking havoc on so many with respiratory ailments and heart conditions. Most of us walk through our daily lives unaware of the price our most vulnerable – children, elderly, and others with compromised health – are paying, as air pollution irritates lung airways and infiltrates bloodstreams.

This point is not lost on my friend whose son suffers with asthma. “Most people don’t know that pollution can aggravate asthma,” she said.

Having rushed her son unable to breathe to the emergency room more than once, my friend is hyperaware of the need to reduce the things that exacerbate his asthma. She does what she can around their house to limit asthma triggers, but feels helpless when she lets him walk outside.

On Dec. 14, my friend’s son and others with chronic diseases may get some relief if the Obama Administration chooses to support stronger limits on particle pollution, commonly called soot. These limits, called the National Ambient Air Quality Standards, ensure that everyone in the nation is protected based on the most current public health science. The present standard, set in 1997, no longer reflects what the most current science shows to be protective of public health. In fact, many are living under the false sense of security that the air is safe to breathe when it is not. Hundreds of scientific studies have confirmed that millions of asthma attacks, as well as heart attacks, strokes, and even deaths, could be prevented every year if the standard were strengthened.

The black smoke that spews out of smokestacks, chimneys, and from the tailpipes of countless vehicles contains billions of particles of soot. The body reacts to soot in much the same way it does cigarette smoke. These microscopic particles are easily inhaled and inflame not only the lungs, but all of the body’s essential life systems. In fact, breathing soot has been compared to taking a piece of sandpaper and rubbing it against the tissue of the lungs.

The 2011 Sick of Soot report, which the American Lung Association coauthored, concluded that adopting an annual standard of 11 μg/m3 and a daily standard of 25 μg/m3 would provide the most health benefits. Most notably, these more protective standards would prevent as many as 35,700 deaths from occurring annually as a direct result of breathing in soot –almost enough lives saved to fill every seat in historic Fenway Park.

Massachusetts has the unfortunate bragging rights of having asthma rates that are among the highest in the nation, with approximately one in 10 adults and children living with the disease. Unfortunately, children suffer most, as their lungs do not fully develop until they reach early adulthood. Early exposure to particle pollution during this critical development period can hinder lungs from maturing properly and cause respiratory problems that children will carry with them for a lifetime. Asthma is a common chronic condition in children and is a leading cause of emergency room visits and missed school days in Massachusetts. Although the human suffering associated with asthma is great, so is the cost to our wallets. According to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, total charges for asthma hospitalizations in Massachusetts in 2010 were $113 million - a 126 percent increase since 2000. Taxpayers are expected to pay 66 percent of those costs.

It is a shame that we live in a state that prides itself on being a leader in the health, environmental, and renewable energy fields, yet our residents are suffering at the mercy of a national pollution standard that is outdated and does not provide adequate public health protection. For the sake of children like my friend’s son and many others who suffer with asthma or compromised health, President Obama must ensure that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency adopts the most protective soot standard possible. Anything less places the health of current and future generations at risk.

Barbara Kwetz Allan is the former director of air quality at the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection and a board member of the American Lung Association in Massachusetts.