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Surprise Finding: Auto Emission Kill More than Wrecks

Pollution from cars and trucks kills more people than traffic crashes. Researchers, in a study in the journal Science, say cutting greenhouse gases in four cities they studied -- Sao Paulo, Brazil; Mexico City; Santiago, Chile; and New York City -- could save 64,000 lives over the next 20 years.

Los Angeles air quality officials agree and say that cutting smog levels throughout Southern California could save tens of thousands of lives annually. ?The pollution in Los Angeles has been associated with all kinds of respiratory diseases, including asthma, bronchitis and retarding development in the lungs for people who have grown up here,? says Bill Kelly, spokesman for the Southern California Air Quality Management District. ?On days with heavy particulate pollution, we see increased hospital admissions for acute respiratory problems.?

The American Lung Association of Los Angeles County reports that 50,000 to 100,000 people across the nation die prematurely each year from smog-related causes. Of the 15.7 million residents of the five-county Los Angeles region, 1.3 million suffer from asthma, bronchitis and emphysema and are particularly susceptible to smog.

?The message in our study is that there are real and immediate health benefits? in reducing greenhouse gases, says Devra Lee Davis, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University?s Heinz School in Pittsburgh. She says ozone, particulate matter, carbon dioxide and other pollutants from the burning of fossil fuels are causing people, particularly in cities, to die prematurely from asthma, breathing disorders and heart disease.

?It is our best estimate that more people are being killed by air pollution from traffic than from traffic crashes,? Davis says. ?There are more than a thousand studies from 20 countries all showing that you can predict a certain death rate based on the amount of pollution.?

But Dr. Russell V. Luepker, a cardiologist and professor at the University of Minnesota, says air pollution is not recognized as a significant cause of heart disease in the United States. ?It is not a major factor in developing heart disease, but it does play a role in acute episodes that can kill you,? says Luepker. ?More people either come to emergency rooms or die of heart disease during pollution episodes,? but the pollution is not the disease, he says.

Marian Frieri, a professor of medicine and an asthma expert at State University of New York at Stony Brook, says air pollution can contribute to asthma inflammation but is only one factor on top of another condition. ?We have a lot of patients who are affected by pollution,? she says. ?Ozone can increase the reaction to allergies, for instance. It is like a second whammy effect.?

A World Health Organization study estimates that air pollution will cause about 8 million deaths worldwide by 2020. Jonathan Patz of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health says the study by Davis and her co-authors draws ?an important conclusion.

?It shows that there are significant health benefits to be had from reducing emissions from the burning of fossil fuels,? he says.

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