More Smog Might Mean More Hospitalizations

WEDNESDAY April 18, 2012 -- Long-term exposure to fine-particle air pollution may increase older adults' risk of being hospitalized for lung and heart disease, stroke and diabetes, a new study says.

Harvard School of Public Health researchers compared air-quality data with hospital admission records on all Medicare patients aged 65 and older admitted to 3,000 New England hospitals between 2000 and 2006.

The researchers focused on fine air particles known as PM2.5, which have a diameter of 2.5 microns or less and are narrower than the width of a human hair. These particles -- emitted by vehicles, power plants, wood-burning devices and some industrial processes -- can lodge in the lungs and cause inflammation throughout the body.

"Our study found that long-term rates of admissions for pneumonia, heart attacks, strokes and diabetes are higher in locations with higher long-term average particle concentrations," lead author Itai Kloog, a research fellow in the department of environmental health, said in a university news release.

For example, every increase of 10 micrograms per cubic meter of long-term PM2.5 exposure was associated with a roughly 4 percent increase in hospital admissions for respiratory issues, a 3 percent increase in cardiovascular disease admissions, a 3.5 percent increase in stroke admissions and a 6 percent increase in diabetes admissions.

The study appeared online April 17 in the journal PLoS One.

"Particulate air pollution is one of the largest avoidable causes of death and illness in the United States, and, unlike diet and exercise, does not require behavioral change," senior author Joel Schwartz, a professor of environmental epidemiology and director of the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, said in the news release.

"Off-the-shelf technology can be retrofitted onto sources of pollution at modest cost, with a large health benefit," Schwartz said. "This study shows that in addition to avoiding deaths, such measures will reduce chronic disease and medical care costs."

More information

The World Health Organization has more about air quality and health.

Posted: April 2012


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