Hickman Lecture: Air Pollution Myths and Facts

Air pollution continues to be a problem in Utah and around the world, but the extent of that problem, both actual and understood, seems to vary widely. C. Arden Pope III, a professor of Economics at BYU, in the College of Family, Home, and Social Sciences, spoke on the top 10 things skeptics, whether members of the public or policy makers, tend to ask about air pollution and health at a recent lecture, given as part of the Hickman series. In lay man’s terms, and with witty phrases and jokes, he captivated the audience of students, friends, faculty, and Hickman family members. Pope is the Mary Lou Fulton Professor of Economics at BYU. Pope has authored or coauthored about 200 research articles on the subject of air pollution and its effects on health. These articles have received over 62 thousand citations, making Pope one of the world’s most cited and recognized experts on health effects of air pollution.

Top 10 Controversies about air pollution

photo taken by David Holt, used under Creative Commons



1CaptureWas London’s smog romantic or deadly?

Many classical paintings included smog and smoke and a hazy view of London. In the 1930-1950’s, pollution was so high that thousands died, so it was indisputable that air pollution was detrimental.

Smog is deadly.

2CaptureCan short-term, moderate levels of air pollution hurt people?

In Utah, Geneva Steel puffed pollutants in to the sky into the 1980’s. Then, Geneva Steel closed for 13 months. Once it reopened, a pattern emerged. Hospital admittance of children with asthma doubled when the mill was opened.

Further research revealed a correlation between daily death count (of respiratory and cardiovascular) and air pollution levels. The more polluted the air, the more people died. Air pollution is also associated with hospitalizations, lung infections, school absences, symptoms of respiratory illness, ischemic heart disease, cardiac-autonomic function, and more.

More researchers, such as John Samet, did similar studies in many cities all over the world.

Any level of air pollution is harmful.

3CaptureCan long-term exposure to air pollution significantly contribute to disease or death?

After much research with many colleagues, Pope proposed new ambient air quality standards for the Environmental Protection Agency to enforce in 1997. Many people resisted and there was a call that other scientists confirm Pope’s data. These studies confirmed the accuracy of the data. Other countries replicated these studies as well.

Long-term exposure to air pollution contributes to disease and death.

4CaptureDoes reducing air pollution improve heath and mortality?

Pope said that there is almost a 25 percent improvement rate of health and mortality when air quality is improved. He referenced several other studies which confirmed this research.

Reducing air pollution improves health and mortality.

5CaptureDoes a save threshold for air pollution exist?

Is there any level of air pollution that will not harm a person? The answer seems to be no. Pope’s research taught him that there is no evidence of such a threshold. There has been research done to answer this question all over the world, and the conclusion is the same.

“We just never could see any evidence of a safe threshold,” Pope said.

6CaptureWhy aren’t all the smokers dead?

Skeptics have asked: “if it is so bad to breathe air pollution, why aren’t all the people who smoke dead? Pope’s research and studies did not find a definitive answer. He did find that there are “not linear-diminishing marginal effects.” There are too many other factors to be able to conclude or not conclude something so linear.

7CaptureAre these health effects biologically plausible?

Air pollution leads to damage of the endothelial lining of the lungs. Damage to the lining can lead to diseases. Endothelial disease kills people the most if it leads to heart attacks.  Pope did studies with BYU student volunteers to measure the healthiness of endothelial in the lungs. BYU is a great place for this study, because BYU students do not smoke, they just live in a polluted area.

Pope learned that there is still much to be learned, but it is plausible.

“Basically, you have more damage [in the lungs], and less repair” because of air pollution, Pope said.

8CaptureAren’t air pollution health effects¬†small in comparison to other risk factors?

“OK, so what?” asked skeptics. Pope said he learned from other’s research that what we eat, drink, and breathe impacts our health. Air pollution is a big influence.

In comparison to other risk factors, the negative health effects of air pollution are substantial.

9CaptureWon’t cleaning up air pollution be too expensive to fix? Won’t it hurt the economy?

Pope said that as an economist, he believes that cleaning up the air pollution will help the economy. “The benefits of improving our air quality are substantial,” Pope said. “These benefits are almost unbelievable, unimaginable.” He was adamant that any claim of damage to an economy caused by the cleaning up of an area’s air pollution is false. Improved air quality would also encourage more people to move to and visit Utah, which would boost the economy.

“It does appear that we can have a thriving economy and clean air,” Pope said.

10CaptureHow much evidence is needed before efforts to have clean air are no longer controversial?

“I have no more slides,” Pope said at the conclusion of his lecture.salt_lake_city_smog_haze_skyline_01