Vigilance against pollution makes for a happy Earth Day

The negative effects of pollution on human health are plain to see, said OMRF President Stephen Prescott, M.D.

Earth Day began as a teaching tool in 1970 by former U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson to raise awareness and concern for the environment and public health.

“Pollution was evident, even if people weren’t paying attention to it,” Prescott said. “The Cuyahoga River in Ohio was so bad, it caught on fire in 1969. The skies over major cities were black with smog.”

And though air quality has steadily improved since the Clean Air Act passed in 1970, there are still extreme examples of how pollution negatively impacts health, he said.

“Contaminants in the water, like lead, arsenic and some types of bacteria, can kill us,” Prescott said. “Coal miners got black lung. And we all know how smoke, either first- or second-hand, can instigate asthma and cancer.”

What’s harder to know is how lower levels of pollution affect us, he said. If we know extreme cases can do real harm, then it stands to reason that even as the intensity is decreased, pollutants can still cause us harm.

“It’s hard to show cause and effect, though. If everybody who drinks out of a river dies within a few days, it’s pretty clear that whatever is in that river should be avoided,” he said. “But if pollution is reducing our lifespans by a few years, it’s hard to tell until the end.”

Longitudinal studies can help future generations with their conclusions, but in the meantime, use common sense, Prescott said.

If it looks disgusting, he said, it’s probably a good idea to fix it.

“There’s a lot of doom and gloom out there, but we really are doing much better than we were,” he said. “The quality of our environment has improved because of awareness and effort. We’re not done, not by a long shot, but I think we’re on the right track.”