ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Q: Earlier this summer, the Dog Head Fire messed up the air in Albuquerque for several days. What effect does an air pollution insult like that cause on my children’s lungs? What can we do about it?
A: We Albuquerqueños were lucky to have had much of the air pollution from the Dog Head Fire in June on the east side of the Manzano Mountains flow north rather than west across the mountains, and that the fire was extinguished relatively quickly, so it’s unlikely there would have been any long-term effects. Short-term breathing problems among those with severe asthma, emphysema, or other chronic lung diseases might have occurred.
But your question is relevant to more than just smoke from the Dog Head Fire. Every summer brings some days when forest fire smoke remnants – sometimes from southern New Mexico, sometimes from Arizona – clouds our air. What might be the acute and chronic effects of that sort of air pollution?
To update my knowledge about the effects of air pollution on health, I went to my favorite starting point, Pubmed, a service of the National Library of Medicine, which catalogues almost all medical literature as soon as it’s published and provides an abstract of most articles. You can use it too, at www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed. Not surprisingly, there are many Chinese articles — there are both a lot of people including scientists in China, but also China contends with a huge air pollution problem associated with its rapid industrialization.
It appears as if the most serious acute effects of air pollution are felt by people at both ends of the age spectrum: the elderly, and infants and small children. Those with lung and heart diseases are especially likely to experience worsening of those conditions when air quality is worsened.
In adults, worse air quality, measured as particulate matter — usually PM2.5, or particles less than 2.5 micrometers in size — is strongly associated with heart attacks, heart failure, stroke, arrhythmias (disturbances of the rhythm of the heart)and blood clots. This is probably related to the body’s reaction, inflammation, to the invading particles. The World Health Organization estimates that 3.7 million deaths occur each year around the world due to air pollution.
Imagine that we were Angelenos instead of Albuquerqueños. We would have experienced a great deal of air pollution from the time of our birth, though we would have seen much improvement over the course of our lives. In fact, studies show both marked improvement in overall air quality in the Los Angeles Basin, accompanied by major improvement in lung function in adolescents there, as well as decreases in admissions for asthma and for other lung diseases.
Long-term exposure to high levels of air pollution has also been associated with such diverse problems as neurological disease, including impaired cognition (thinking), and decreased sperm quality.
Recognition of the need to control outdoor air pollution is widespread now, and a major form of indoor pollution, cigarette smoking, has also decreased over the last two decades. Such decreases are also very important to your child and most children – when I was a child, some 40% of adults smoked, and we were exposed to smoke in restaurants, cars, shops, even on airplanes.
I hope your child has not been exposed to cigarette smoke, either before birth or since! Prenatal tobacco exposure from mothers who smoke has been associated with a wide range of seemingly unrelated problems, even if the mother has stopped smoking by the time of birth. Findings (again on Pubmed) indicate that prenatal smoking is followed by an increased risk of small size at birth, attention problems and ADHD, language disorders, the skin disorder eczema, and even propensity to smoke later in life, among other things.
Returning to your issue of outdoor air pollution, I spoke recently with Petroglyph National Monument Ranger Susana Villanueva. She tells me that she will soon initiate a program to help certain lucky elementary school children measure PM2.5 here in Albuquerque using an app for their cell phones. She will then talk about the effects of air pollution on the children’s health.
I am pleased to help Ranger Villanueva with her project; I am also pleased to have found for you a wise comment on pollution from Janez Potocnik, the current European Commissioner for the Environment: “if you think the economy is more important than the environment, try holding your breath while counting your money”.
Lance Chilton is a long-time Albuquerque pediatrician.Send your questions to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.