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A study of more than 11.5 million Medicare patients aged over 65 has concluded that even short-term exposure to fine particle air pollution significantly increases the risk of contracting cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. The study was conducted by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, itself a department within the National Institute of Health.
This is the largest study ever conducted of the effect of fine particle air pollution and heart and lung disease, not only in the country but in the world. Fine particle air pollution is typically caused through power plant emissions or fuel exhaust emissions. These microscopic particles the size of dust or soot particles and around 30 times less than the thickness of a human hair, are able to lodge and accumulate deep within the respiratory system. Over time, lung function decreases while pre-existing conditions such as asthma are inflamed and aggravated.
It is not surprising that counties on the heavily industrialized Eastern seaboard have the highest rates of fine particle air pollution and so, the highest rates of lung and heart disease. Any location where there is heavy use of fossil fuels reports a substantial increase in the number of patients suffering from heart and lung conditions.
The extensive study delivered the proof that even small increases in the levels of fine particle air pollutants gave rise to a significantly higher level of hospital admissions for heart failure, heart and vascular conditions, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and infections of the respiratory system. Patients over the age of 75 years of age are particularly vulnerable and experience significantly higher rates of admissions for these conditions than the rest of the population.
Funding for this huge research study was provided by the U.S. Environmental protection Agency (EPA) and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. The research was conducted by a team at the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the results were finally published in March, 2006 in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
The EPA’s Aerometric Information Retrieval Service provides a nationwide network of data collection locations. This retrieval network was used to collect the data on fine air particle concentrations from over 200 counties scattered across the country and provided data over a three-year period.
The EPA is involved because it has a primary function of controlling environmental pollution through the setting of standards and guidelines. The study demonstrates that there is a strong need for the establishment of air quality guidelines, particularly to safeguard the health of the elderly. The study particularly demonstrates that even minor fine air pollution levels, well below those of the existing national standards, are causing significant health implications for patients.
The question as to whether fine air pollution causes increased incidence of heart and lung diseases is now clearly established, however why are such minor levels of fine air pollution causing such high levels of disease? This in turn will lead to what can be done to counter the harmful effects of fine particle air pollution.