The World Health Organization has classified polluted air as a Group One human carcinogen. That puts the air that most people in the world are breathing in the same category of harmfulness as such things as asbestos and cigarette smoke. It also ranks the eastern United States, along with China, Mexico and North Africa as having the most polluted air in the world. In some ways, of course, this is old news. Some of us figured out a few decades ago that polluted air is not good for you. Nevertheless, as reported by Reuters this new study is going to rock some big boats.
For one thing, it cast a very large net, reviewing thousands of peer-reviewed scientific studies published around the world, some of which had followed large populations of people for many decades. This is important because the symptoms of air pollution can take 20 or 30 years to manifest, and few studies have the time to wait and see. For another, it did not restrict its attention to one component of air pollution, but simply looked for the effects of dirty air.
In the past, the favorite defense of any industry accused of doing harm by polluting has been to say, a) “We’ve been polluting for years and nothing bad has happened yet,” or b), in a case where something really bad has happened, “you can’t prove it was our particular emissions that did it.” This has always struck me as the equivalent of a drunk firing a gun into a crowded room and then saying in his defense to the people hit, “Well, I wasn’t aiming at you, it was not my intention to hurt you in particular.” The weight and scope of this study might help create a new legal principle that recognizes firing a gun into a crowded room as a harmful — and actionable — act.
The study says that in 2010, nearly a quarter of a million people around the world died from lung cancer that was caused by air pollution. The study says that anyone breathing polluted air has a dramatically elevated chance of getting and dying from lung cancer. It also found strong evidence to suggest that bladder cancer is another effect of dirty air. Other studies have detailed the toll various pollutants take on us in the form of respiratory and heart disease.
The tendency to treat this new study and others like it as old news is something we should fight. It is akin to the feeling of peaceful sleepiness that comes over you when you are about to freeze to death.
We need to realize, and keep constantly in mind, that the new news — such as the daily revelations about the onset of global climate change — is also about our old familiar friend air pollution. Trendy new terms such as carbon footprint and greenhouse gases refer to air pollution. The term is old, the concept is old, the knowledge that it is killing us is old. If we do nothing about it, it is our civilization that is not going to get much older.