Though (relatively) blue skies are back, the astronomical AQI figures from last weekend’s heavy smog reignited the debate about the real and perceived risks of air pollution. In a thought-provoking post on My Health Beijing, beijingkids columnist and BJU doctor Dr. Richard Saint Cyr examines the health impact of smoking cigarettes versus exposure to PM 2.5 from air pollution.
At first, the verdict doesn’t look good for smokers. Dr. Richard cites an email exchange with C. Arden Pope of Brigham Young University, one of the world’s leading experts on air pollution:
[Dr. Richard]: Even with a PM2.5 of 880 ug/m3 recorded last weekend in Beijing, that still only comes out to ~14 mg of PM2.5 per 24 hours, barely the equivalent of one cigarette, which has 12 mg on average. Despite the scary news reports about our pollution emergency, is it still accurate to say this is still not even the same risk as 2 cigarettes, and any casual smoker every day is exposing his heart and lungs to much more dangerous levels than even today’s air pollution?
Pope: Yes. Cigarette smoking is an incredibly effective way to expose an individual’s body to very high levels of harmful fine particulate matter and combustion-related nasty stuff. High levels of ambient air pollution are an effective way to expose whole populations to harmful fine particulate matter and associated combustion-related pollutants. These high levels of air pollution that we are seeing in Beijing may be similar, in terms of excess risk, to smoking a cigarette or two per day.
Last week, a Facebook friend posted about an earlier entry on My Health Beijing, setting off a firestorm of comments in the process:
Smokers complaning about Beijing air pollution: you are a special kind of dumb.
Even if the pollution had stayed at its 755 [AQI] peak for an entire day, the damage to a normal adult’s lungs would have been equivalent to about 1/6 of a cigarette. An average day isn’t even 1/6 of a cigarette.
Next time you open your mouth to moan, how about you stuff it with a delicious Zhongnanhai instead?
One person responded with the argument that smoking is a lifestyle choice, while being exposed to hazardous levels of air pollution is not. Actually, it is, says Dr. Richard. Living in Beijing is what he calls a “modifiable risk factor,” which also includes behaviors such as smoking, eating poorly, and not doing enough exercise.
In the end, the risk of air pollution is all relative. It matters far more whether you fulfill seven health measures set out by the American Heart Association.
- Not smoking
- Having a body mass index (BMI) of 25 or less
- Getting enough physical exercise (more than 150 minutes per week of moderate activity)
- Eating a diet that includes three or more servings of fruits and veggies daily
The remaining measures are too technical for your average Joe (e.g. having a total cholesterol level of less than 200mg/dL or milligrams per deciliter), but the idea is that lower blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar – combined with the above-mentioned criteria – all contribute to a lower risk of mortality from all diseases of the circulatory system.
So the next time Beijing experiences another high-AQI day, stop and consider all the facts before jumping to any conclusions about the effects that air pollution may have on your health. That’s one way to breathe easier.
Photo by ernop via Flickr