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Science & Policy Update October 2014: Regional Air Quality

By: Angela Johnson Meszaros, General Counsel

Air pollution is a leading cause of cancer deaths worldwide. In October 2013, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer announced that “after thoroughly reviewing the latest available scientific literature,” it had decided to classify outdoor air pollution as carcinogenic to humans. They also noted a positive association between exposure to outdoor air pollution and increased risk for bladder cancer. This was the first time that “outdoor air pollution” as a whole had been classified as a cause of cancer. In addition to the usual approach – identifying specific chemicals or mixtures as carcinogenic – the IARC had examined particulate matter, and also classified it as carcinogenic to humans.

Dr. Kurt Straiff, Head of the IARC Monographs Section called outdoor air pollution “a leading cause of cancer deaths.” This month in Environmental Health Perspectives, an important article followed up on the new classification. In the article “Outdoor Particulate Matter Exposure and Lung Cancer: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis”, a team of researchers took a look at the link between particulate matter and lung cancer. Particularly interesting was the analysis of lung cancer incidences by smoking status, which found that lung cancer was greatest in former smokers, followed by never-smokers, then by current smokers.

The cover of September’s Environmental Health Perspectives offers another incredibly important look at outdoor air pollution and health. This article focuses on the connection between low-level, long-term exposures to environmental hazards and cognitive function later in life. The article, “Time After Time; Environmental Influences on the Aging Brain,” explores the question of whether early-life exposure to environmental hazards can have significant health effects down the line. It strongly suggests that cognitive disorders observed later in life can be mistaken for Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, when actually the observed effects are the result of earlier life exposure to environmental contamination. Together, these articles highlight the importance of environmental quality for human health.

Currently, the South Coast Air Basin is one of the few areas in the entire United States that does not meet 1997 health-based standards for particulate matter established by the federal Clean Air Act (the standard has been adjusted downward twice since 1997, compliance with those new standards is not expected for many, many years).

Here at PSR-LA we are addressing these issues in two ways: first, we are working to establish policies that will reduce emissions of particulate matter and neurotoxins as part of the Air Quality Management Plan process currently underway in the Los Angeles region. Second, PSR-LA is suing the U.S. EPA for failing to ensure that there is an adequate plan in place to meet the standards established in 2006. In this way, we are working to develop strong, protective polices, while pushing the EPA to ensure that the plans developed really do achieve the air pollution reductions necessary to protect human health.