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STUDY: Air pollution = smoking a pack of cigarettes

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National Weather Service
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View of the Washington Monument on clear and polluted air days.

In what apparently is first-of-its-kind research, scientists say air pollution can be the equivalent of smoking a pack of cigarettes - and if you already smoke, it is the equivalent of another pack.

The study is important enough that it was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. JAMA has long been an arbiter of what is important in health research.

Scientists from the University of Washington and Columbia University studied health records of more than 7,000 people over age 18 to find a growing problem with emphysema, wheezing so well known to people with lung problems.

University at Buffalo Assistant Professor of Epidemiology and Environmental Health Meng Wang worked on the study at the University of Washington before joining UB.

"In our study, we have conditional finding positive for lung function, like ozone may be some signal that ozone may be having a stronger effect on people in smokers," Wang said, "so this may be some interaction between air pollution and smoking effect."

And air pollution, especially ozone air pollution, is increasing with climate change, the study found. Wang said the length of the study helps uncover real evidence.

"This population are like the general population, healthy people, which starts from monitoring people when they are healthy and follow them for up to 18 years and see how they are progressing over time," he said.

The study looked at residents of six major metropolitan areas. The scientists said they were surprised at the correlation between air pollution, especially ozone, and damaged lungs the way smoking does. That means it is a problem for non-smokers. Wang said that means non-smokers should take precautions, like residential air cleaners.

"When they see the high pollution episode come, and they will probably open up to some air purifier or some mask to prevent some air pollution, then some personal prevention that we can do," he said.

Mike Desmond is one of Western New York’s most experienced reporters, having spent nearly a half-century covering the region for newspapers, television stations and public radio. He has been with WBFO and its predecessor, WNED-AM, since 1988. As a reporter for WBFO, he has covered literally thousands of stories involving education, science, business, the environment and many other issues. Mike has been a long-time theater reviewer for a variety of publications and was formerly a part-time reporter for The New York Times.
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