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Every year the American Lung Association designates the month of May as Clean Air Awareness Month. Clean Air month for 2010 has come and gone, but the challenges of ensuring clean air for a better respiratory system remain for people around the world.

The impact of the BP oil spill on air quality in the southern US

Although the focus of attention in the news reports of the BP oil spill has been the massive flow of oil into the ocean endangering all kinds of wildlife, news of air pollution related to the leaking oil well is slowly coming to public light. Two kinds of air pollution, volatile hydrocarbons and hydrogen sulfide, pose a special danger to people and animals residing on the American Gulf Coast.

Volatile hydrocarbons, also known as VOCs, are the chemicals in oil that can evaporate into the atmosphere. The US government measures these chemicals as a group, but sets safety standards for specific kinds of chemicals in oil that can enter the air we breathe, such as benzene.

Benzene (not to be confused with the fuel for automobiles) can cause leukemia if it is breathed in concentrations of less than 1 part per million in the air. When even 9 parts of per million of air consist of benzene, emergency medical treatment is essential.

Naphthalene is another VOC that can enter the atmosphere. It's even more toxic than benzene. The State of Louisiana has ruled that exposure to even 0.2 parts of naphthalene in one million parts of air is a health hazard. This chemical is not just a threat to a better respiratory system; it is a major threat to life itself. The main ingredient in mothballs, even small doses of the chemical can cause the breakdown of red blood cells.

About 400,000,000 people worldwide have a genetic condition called glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase deficiency that makes them especially susceptible to poisoning by this contaminant of clean air. People of African, South Asian, and Middle Eastern descent are especially susceptible to this kind of airborne poisoning.

Hydrogen sulfide is the chemical that causes the smell of rotten eggs. Natural gas, which is found with most oil deposits, including the oil at the BP well leaking in the Gulf of Mexico, can be up to 90 per cent hydrogen sulfide.

Hydrogen sulfide compares in toxicity with hydrogen cyanide. Low concentrations of this chemical form a caustic alkali, a little milder than lye, when they mix with the proteins lining the nose and lungs. People can smell even 1 part in 10,000,000,000 (ten billion), which is also the level at which health problems begin.

Is the Gulf oil spill an imminent danger to clean air for better respiratory health?

On the Gulf Coast itself, there can be no doubt that the Deepwater Horizon spill, at least as this article is being written, is a true and imminent danger to respiratory health. The simple fact is, however, that volatile hydrocarbons and hydrogen sulfide in the air are a danger to many millions of people far away from the oil spill, and that these chemicals have been a danger to respiratory health for even longer than there has been industrial production of chemicals.

Clean air issues in the home

Benzene, for instance, isn't just a component of fuel for cars and trucks. It is also released by burning firewood. Because firewood is burned at relatively low temperatures, any chemical contaminant in the wood usually survives the heat to get into the air inside the house the firewood is used to heat. Acetaldehyde and formaldehyde along with benzene contaminate indoor air along with benzene, so much that burning firewood is one of the top 10 causes of disease worldwide.

Not just obvious conditions, such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, emphysema, and lung cancer, but also cataracts and birth defects result from exposure to the chemicals released by burning wood. Scientists at the Sahlgrenska University Hospital and Academy in Göteborg, Sweden report that as many as 1.6 million deaths a year result from the indoor air pollution emitted by burning firewood.


Clean air issues and smoking

Other volatile hydrocarbons are released in cigarette smoke. Tobacco smoke contains lactones, esters, amides, imides, lactams, carboxylic acids, aldehydes, nitriles, anhydrides, carbohydrates ketones, alcohols, phenols, amines, N-heterocycles, hydrocarbons, and ethers. Scientists at the National Center for Environmental Health at the US Centers for Disease Control estimate that just in the United States, exposure to these chemicals causes 440,000 deaths a year, and another 9 million people are sick because of tobacco-related air pollution.

Even if the entire population of the central Gulf Coast of the United States were exposed to the poisonous vapors emitted by the Deepwater Horizon well, this would still be less than the number of people currently made sick by tobacco smoke. This is why the American Lung Association and thousands of government agencies around the world push so hard for bans on public smoking.

The benefits of banning smoking prove out in blood tests. In New York City, for example, blood tests found that the average person's exposure to one of the toxic chemicals in cigarette smoke, cotinine, fell by 50 per cent after a public smoking ban went into effect. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Third National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals reported that nearly all non-smokers (88%) had chemicals from tobacco smoke in their blood before the bans went into place (in the early 1990's), but by the year 2002 only about 43% of non-smokers carried chemicals from second-hand tobacco smoke.

The results of a century of hard work

The forerunner of the American Lung Association opened its doors in 1904. The constant efforts of the American Lung Association in the United States for over 100 years, and the hard work of similar organizations and agencies around the world, have brought better respiratory health to hundreds of millions of people in almost every country in the world.

The cooperation of smokers in simply keeping their tobacco smoke to themselves has resulted tens of millions fewer deaths and hundreds of millions fewer cases of tobacco-related disease. Ongoing efforts by ordinary people, local governments, and nations to control other forms of air pollution can only maximize the benefits of clean air for good respiratory health.

  • Gustafson P, Barregard L, Strandberg B, Sällsten G. The impact of domestic wood burning on personal, indoor and outdoor levels of 1,3-butadiene, benzene, formaldehyde and acetaldehyde. J Environ Monit. 2007 Jan.9(1):23-32. Epub 2006 Dec 7.
  • Pirkle JL, Bernert JT, Caudill SP, et al. Trends in the exposure of nonsmokers in the U.S. population to secondhand smoke: 1988–2002. Environ Health Perspect 2006.114:853–858.
  • Richter P, Pechacek T, Swahn M, Wagman V. Reducing levels of toxic chemicals in cigarette smoke: a new Healthy People 2010 objective. Public Health Rep. 2008 Jan-Feb.123(1):30-8.
  • Photo courtesy of Alexander Saprykin by Flickr :