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article imageOp-Ed: Pollution — Why environmental epidemiology is such a bad joke

By Paul Wallis     Aug 20, 2011 in Environment
Sydney - From the 1950s through to the late 70s, pollution, particularly air pollution, was a very big issue. It’s now an excuse for the whole ineffectual science of epidemiology to go to sleep and issue soggy press releases about smoking.
The basis of epidemiology is creating a picture of a medical condition based on several core factors:
1. Environment
2. History of cases
3. Contributing factors
Anyone would think, reading mainstream media on the subject of pollution, that there was no such thing as air pollution, and that the only risk to anyone in breathing was passive smoking or those nice corporate people having to raise their charges to obey the law. That’s not quite the case. In South East Asia, there’s a cute thing called the Brown Haze, which is believed to cause about “half a million deaths a year”. That’s fine because it’s “over there” where nobody needs to do anything about it. As a matter of fact all continents have their own versions of the brown haze effect.
It so happens that the West has a glowing history of decades of “air abuse”, thanks to vehicle emissions, industry, acid rain, etc. Various parts of Europe and North America were at one stage as bad as China is now. The pollution included masses of particulate matter, heavy metals, oxides, and practically every known poison in forms of fumes from various products. The entire Eastern bloc of the Cold War is still one gigantic pollution zone.
Like everything subjected to political interference, pollution and its issues had its day in the spotlight. The “everything is about passive smoking” approach to incidence of disease seems to indicate that the science of epidemiology has also degenerated into shill fodder, too.
Consider this:
A car produces roughly a kilo of emissions every 25 miles. This pollution includes all the related pollutants in cigarettes, and in fact cigarettes include “benzopyrenes”, which are petroleum products used to make cigarettes burn better. A packet of cigarettes takes about 4-8 hours to smoke, in which time a vehicle would have travelled at least 100-200 miles and deposited 4-8kg of its pollutants. In the same period, cigarettes can only produce about 100-200mg. Motorists don’t have to inhale anything- They’re bathed in gases and fumes from car upholstery, plastics, etc. The whole environment of a motorist is a sort of toxic Woodstock of chemicals and oxides.
About 1.4 million Americans die of respiratory diseases every year, according to the CDC. Roughly 400,000 of these people are smokers. Nearly all are motorists. If you look at the environment, the history of exposure to volumes of toxins, and other contributing factors, which is the more likely cause of respiratory health issues?
Is “genocide by pollution” more acceptable than other forms, or what? Despite the obvious risks of guilt by association in assessing cause and effect in either scenario, what about the fact that these associations never seem to have been made at all by epidemiology in relation to something as basic as driving a car? Studies in the field get little or no profile at all, and they’ve become fewer as a result, a mere drip of new information in the last 10 years. With billions of new cars coming on the road every year, and the resulting environmental impacts, this is “dynamic science”? It wouldn’t qualify as gossip.
Epidemiology appears to be taking the line of least resistance- Agreeing with everybody, and bandwagon hopping on research. This is about as useful as Johns Hopkins taking up fashion design instead of medical research in terms of analysing health issues.
There’s another health problem for everybody, and it’s a set of lousy choices-
Which is more dangerous?
• A science which apparently refuses to do its job properly or honestly,
• A tobacco industry that refuses to remove known health risks from its products (this includes agricultural contaminants, etc.),
• A vehicle industry which is prepared to be penalized with appallingly inefficient, expensive costs in high pollutant-generating fuel engines rather than rock the boat,
• Manufacturers who refuse to recognize the risks of contaminants from their products to consumers,
• A collection of comatose alleged governments who don’t understand any of the issues?
The world is a passive smoker, and it’s not smoking tobacco- It’s smoking carbon, by the megaton. It’s about time the science recognized its role. If you don’t want to do real epidemiology, go back to selling used cars.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
More about Pollution, Air pollution, Passive smoking, epidemiology role in environmental control, Johns hopkins
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