Thursday, January 15, 2009

Killers: SHS is debateable; smog is not

While surfing the web, looking for something interesting to talk about, I came across an article on smog. The article, on, pointed out that the Ontario Medical Association (OMA) was claiming smog killed over 9,500 people in Ontario (Canada) in 2008.

The estimate used by the OMA in 2000 was 1900 deaths, and that had been increased to 5,800 deaths for 2005. Now, in 2008, only a few years later, the estimate had grown to 9,500 in the province of Ontario. It seems that smog is killing a lot of people across Canada. And, not all that many people seem to be aware of it.

Checking out their website, we find the OMA explaining the 2005 increase in deaths by claiming that, “The most significant change though is that we now have reliable cohort-based studies for PM2.5 which show the premature deaths that result from the long-term effects of exposure.”

Dr. Ted Boadway, Executive Director of Health Policy at the OMA said at that time: "Unfortunately, new evidence that uncovers the cumulative impact of smog on our bodies has forced us to increase our earlier estimates of the negative effect smog has on our communities."

What struck me was that OMA estimates for annual premature deaths (2130) due to smog in Toronto alone, were almost three times the number of deaths (831) Health Canada attributes to secondhand smoke exposure for the whole of Canada.

In August 2008, the Canadian Medical Association (CMA) released a study which suggested that: “Up to 21,000 Canadians will die this year due to air pollution."

But, despite the appalling annual death toll from exposure to smog and air pollution, these stories made a splash in the media, then, as the sensationalist impact dissipated, the press quickly lost interest and the public followed suit.

Also, in August of last year, Louisiana scientists announced that a previously unrecognized group of air pollutants, known as persistent free radicals (PFRs), had adverse effects remarkably similar to tobacco smoke.

H. Barry Dellinger, Ph.D., Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, said. "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. This is a staggering, but not unbelievable result, when one considers all of diseases in the world that cannot currently be attributed to a specific origin."

Once again, there was a brief splash in the media, then, the issue was abandoned both in the press and the public consciousness.

Smoking and secondhand smoke, on the other hand, remain in the news thanks to an unrelenting barrage of press releases from anti-smoker crusaders. It’s nothing short of a sophisticated propaganda campaign, of course, intended to demonize and de-normalize smokers.

But, the constant and repetitive nature of the anti-smoker campaign tends to focus public awareness on the subject of secondhand smoke. Yet, although the estimated death toll from smog dwarfs that attributed to secondhand smoke, the public, the press and the politicians are inclined to ignore those deaths as alarmist and, seemingly, inconsequential.

Make no mistake, the campaign to vilify smokers has diverted attention from other very serious risks to the health and well being of society. That’s problematic, and it should be of concern to smokers and non-smokers alike.

And, it raises another question concerning the alleged harmful effects of secondhand smoke.

Most of the new studies on smog, the discovery of persistent free radicals and a host of other scientific findings are fairly recent. How would they impact the studies done on secondhand smoke which did not consider the true health risks of smog as a confounder (an alternative explanation) in establishing the relative risk of secondhand smoke?

Remember, the evidence that secondhand smoke creates a risk of cancer or heart disease in non-smokers is flimsy at best. And, we’ve known for a fact that smog has been killing people since the Great Smog in London back in 1952.

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