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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Smog and the Whole Body

Air Date: Week of

Jan Nunley speaks with John Grupenhoff on recent citings that smog can have a negative effect on many more human organs than simply the lungs and respiratory system. Dr. Grupenhoff is executive vice president of the National Association of Physicians for the Environment.


NUNLEY: The threat posed by air pollution to the human respiratory system is well documented, but does smog affect other parts of the body as well? At a recent conference of the National Association of Physicians for the Environment, doctors and public health professionals came to some disturbing conclusions. We spoke with Association Vice President John Grupenhoff about their soon to be published proceedings.

GRUPENHOFF: The key point is that air pollution not only affects the lungs but it can affect virtually every organ and system in the body, from the skin to the sinuses to the blood to the urogenital system, to the skeletal system, the nervous system, the immune system and others.

NUNLEY: Tell me a little bit about that. You talk about the circulatory system, for instance. How does pollution affect the circulatory system?

GRUPENHOFF: Well, the American Society of Hematology is a member organization of ours and one of their former presidents, as a matter of fact, spoke at the conference, and his point was that after pollutants are inhaled or otherwise taken into the body they can enter the bloodstream, where their potential harmful effects are distributed to all other systems throughout the body. Blood profuses every organ, and can carry toxic as well as beneficial substances to them. For example, carbon monoxide binds much more avidly to the blood cell than does oxygen, and displaces it. And this can have significant effects upon the heart, which relies so heavily upon oxygen.

NUNLEY: The skeletal system is also affected, and that was a surprise to me.

GRUPENHOFF: Well, that was a surprise to many in the audience. The skeletal system can be affected because it can store heavy metals like lead. And that can be accumulated over time. And this can lead to later release of the lead back into the body when the bone changes, such as in pregnancy or lactation or osteoporosis.

NUNLEY: Some groups seem to be more affected or affected differently than others. Children, women, the elderly, minority populations. Why is that and what are some of the differing effects?

GRUPENHOFF: Well, children, particularly, are more vulnerable to airborne pollution. Children, after all, have an increased need for oxygen relative to the size of adults. They breathe more rapidly. They inhale more pollutant per pound of body weight than do adults. And they also spend a lot more time engaged in vigorous outdoor activities than adults do.

NUNLEY: You brought all these physician groups together. They're sharing this information about environmental health effects. What do you want to come of this effort?

GRUPENHOFF: Well, we're now developing a national program of physician education and, through physicians, public education on the impacts of air pollution on all body organs and systems, with the bottom line being the theme that pollution prevention is disease prevention. We will be developing a slide program with a teacher's guide, and we'll be developing a video graphically displaying each of the organs and systems and showing how those are impacted by air pollution. We've already put a lot of this information on our home page on the Internet. Also, we're creating a series of physicians' fact sheets. For example, there will be a fact sheet on air pollution impacts on the ear, nose, and throat, and air pollution impacts on the skin, and so on.

NUNLEY: How can physicians help their patients avoid these environmental effects?

GRUPENHOFF: Well, what the doctors can do primarily is to indicate to the public that air pollution can be mitigated, that prevention is vital in terms of air pollution, and to join in community efforts to reduce the amount that is in our air.

NUNLEY: Mr. Grupenhoff, thanks for talking with us.

GRUPENHOFF: Thank you.

NUNLEY: John Grupenhoff is Executive Vice President of the National Association of Physicians for the Environment.



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