Worcester Telegram and Gazette
AS I SEE IT
By Dr. Michele Pici
Too often disease prevention statistics are viewed as such abstract figures that we fail to see ourselves or perhaps even someone close to us as possible beneficiaries of such preventative actions.
Depending upon whom you ask, the business of disease prevention can be an unglamorous affair. At a recent U.S. Environmental Protection Agency public hearing held in Chicago, an oil industry executive scoffed at the idea of new standards to reduce vehicle pollution. It was stated that the more than 2,000 deaths that would be prevented every year as the result of these proposed standards would be minimal when compared to the cost and effort of implementation.
Therein lies the ongoing public health dilemma. Too often disease prevention statistics are viewed as such abstract figures that we fail to see ourselves or perhaps even someone close to us as possible beneficiaries of such preventative actions.
Too often I see in my practice patients suffering when the air quality index reaches unhealthy levels. The incidence of acute asthma attacks rises sharply, as do the number of patients we see flooding our community health center and emergency rooms, some requiring hospital stays for not only acute respiratory problems but also heart attacks and strokes. Even those with diabetes are more sensitive to changes in air pollution levels. Healthy children and older adults are also at increased risk when air quality suffers.
Across the United States, asthma is the fourth ranking cause of hospitalizations for children under the age of 15, and it costs $3.2 billion dollars every year to treat children with asthma. Take into account that adults with asthma account for an additional $11.5 billion in annual health care expenditures for their medical care, and the magnitude of the situation is clearly far more than an economic dilemma.
Asthma is a costly disease, but also one that causes tremendous suffering and diminished quality of life. An inhaler can only provide so much relief. Yet, this new healthy air standard promises to reduce the burden by also preventing tens of thousands of asthma attacks and asthma related hospitalizations.
If you have spent any time commuting along Route 290 or the Mass Pike, you have bore witness to the epicenter of our air pollution problem. Not only is sitting in such heavy traffic dangerous to the driver — even if your windows are rolled up, dirty air still enters your vehicle — the thousands of people who live near these busy roadways are continually subjected to a deadly health risk to which there is no foreseeable escape unless these standards are implemented.
Digging even deeper into the human side of the data is the humbling fact that those who live closest to our most traveled roadways are often our most vulnerable. In more specific terms, I’m referring to the many Worcester-area residents who are living below the poverty line, struggling to make ends meet. Across the nation, we see that this pattern persists. Excessive exposure to traffic pollution and poverty are often dangerously intertwined.
Students attending the Burncoat Middle and High School in Worcester have asthma rates far above the present 9 percent national average. Asthma is an epidemic at this school sickening 34 percent of the student population whose school and home life offer no reprieve from unhealthy air.
The American Lung Association’s annual State of the Air report card awarded an F to Worcester County for having too many days with high ozone pollution, which is also a known side effect of heavy traffic pollution.
I’ve worked in health care long enough to know that when the well-being of one segment of our society suffers, we all suffer. From missed work and schooldays to the increased burden and expense on the overall health care system, protecting public health is both good for the economy and our collective quality of life.
Now that summer driving season is upon us, consider as you travel down to the Cape or drive to a nearby friend’s home for a barbecue the fact that implementing cleaner gasoline standards will produce the immediate equivalent impact of taking 33 million cars off our roadways. That’s ten times the number of vehicles we have in Massachusetts.
The EPA has a moral duty to heed the advice of its scientists and to implement cleaner gasoline and vehicle emissions standards without further delay. At most it has been estimated that these changes would cost as little as just one penny per gallon, and I know I am not alone when I say that it’s a small price to pay to protect those whom we have left gasping for air for far too long.
Michele Pici, DO, MBA, is the Chief Medical Officer of the Edward M. Kennedy Community Health Center in Worcester.
Original article published by the Worcester Telegram and Gazette – 6/25/13