Thursday, September 4, 2008

SHS is not the only killer in our midst

21,000 Canadians are being killed annually by exposure to air pollution, including 3,000 deaths attributable to short term exposure. So says a study released last month by the CMA (Canadian Medical Association). The CMA predicted that, by 2031, 90,000 will die from acute short term exposure with a cumulative total of over 700,000 dead.

The study, "No Breathing Room: National Illness Costs of Air Pollution”, concentrated largely on the economic costs of the effects of air pollution, rather than the cost in human misery. But, it was the number of estimated deaths that got the most attention; more shock value.

“Even in brief doses, heavy pollution can affect the ability of blood to coagulate, making clotting more likely and giving rise to heart attacks and strokes”, Ted Boadway, CMA's technical advisor on health and the environment was quoted as saying.

Most major media outlets carried the story, but the implication of the CMA’s findings was largely overlooked by the media.

One commenter on the CTV report on the study noted: “With all due respect to the study authors, who I believe have good intentions, people tend to tune out alarmist reports like these. No one I know is going to lose a minute’s sleep over this”. And the author of that comment was right. The story appears to have died a slow death.

The story came, and went, with little or no public debate.

The fact that 21,000 Canadians are expected to die from air pollution this year should be of major concern to all Canadians. In fact, it should be of major concern to all countries experiencing similar air pollution problems. And, it should have sparked considerable debate.

But, I couldn’t find a single journalist who took the story to the next level. For example, why did the CMA concentrate on the economic cost rather than the human toll in suffering and death?

Why didn’t a single news article point out that the 21,000 annual deaths ascribed to air pollution was 21 times the number attributed by Health Canada to secondhand smoke?

Did no one notice that the rate of asthma, usually associated with secondhand smoke, has been steadily climbing in Canada over the past couple of decades while smoking prevalence has been declining? Did anyone consider that air pollution may be a more significant factor in the climb in asthma rates than secondhand smoke?

Recently, scientists at the Environmental Chemistry department at Louisiana State University identified a new form of air pollutant, fine particle residues emitted via automotive exhaust pipes, smokestacks and household chimneys. Dubbed persistent free radicals (PFRs), these particles replicate the damage to humans caused by cigarette smoke.

Newspaper articles on the study suggest that inhaling these pollutants exposes the average person to up to 300 times more free radicals daily than smoking one cigarette.

"Free radicals from tobacco smoke have long been suspected of having extremely harmful effects on the body," said H. Barry Dellinger, Ph.D., of LSU. "Based on our work, we now know that free radicals similar to those in cigarettes are also found in airborne fine particles and potentially can cause many of the same life-threatening conditions”.

Dellinger says this discovery by scientists at LSU could help explain the long-standing medical mystery of why non-smokers develop tobacco-related diseases like lung cancer.

Anti-smoker activists, on the basis of ambiguous epidemiology and suspect statistics, have launched a war of attrition on smokers claiming that smoking is not only killing smokers, but that their secondhand smoke is killing those around them. The social and economic consequences of the relentless war on smokers have been devastating in many cases.

But, the body of scientific evidence pointing to causes other than secondhand smoke in the “smoking related deaths” of non-smokers is mounting. Among these are air pollution and the newly discovered “persistent free radicals”. Why is this evidence being ignored?

A press release from Freedom to Choose in the UK welcomed the LSU study. It quotes Andy Davis, Freedom2Choose chairman: “The conclusions of this study come as no surprise to scientists involved in this type of research. Air-borne pollutants have been a known cause of lung-cancer for over 50 years now. The Medical Research Council, back in 1957, found that up to 30% of all lung-cancers were attributable to air-pollution and this was before the great volumes of traffic appeared on our roads”.

A major study by the CMA warning of the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Canadians over the next three decades and the study from LSU identifying a previously unrecognized group of air pollutants are major news stories. The findings of both have serious implications for the industrialized world.

The news media has failed to give either of these stories the attention they deserve. And, their failure to do so does a serious disservice to the public.

Yet, every claim by the anti-smoker fanatics, no matter how outrageous, is given full-blown press coverage as a matter of course.

Maybe someone should do a study on the news media to find out why.

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