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Where There's Smoke, There's Fire

  En español
By Javier Sierra

For decades, health experts and environmentalists have suspected that the increase of smog in the air raised the number of deaths due to heart and lung diseases. If there's smoke, there's got to be a fire, they reasoned.

Well, the experts turned out to be right. A report published by the country's most prestigious health magazine, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), has verified the "fire."

The study, conducted by researchers from Yale and Johns Hopkins universities, for the first time points out that even relatively small quantities of ozone — a main component of smog — cause an increase in cardio-pulmonary fatalities.

The report focused on the country's 95 most populated areas, where 40 percent of Americans and the overwhelming majority of the Latino community live. These areas include Los Angeles and California's Central Valley, Chicago, Houston, New York, Phoenix and Atlanta.

But what is this poison called ozone? It's a colorless gas that forms mainly during the summertime when car and industrial emissions react with sunlight. Ozone is a powerful irritant that causes the airways to swell, triggering asthma attacks and other respiratory diseases, and is also a factor in heart attacks.

And when it comes to pollution, what is fire for the population in general, is an inferno for Hispanics. Whereas 57 percent of non-Hispanic whites live in counties with the country's dirtiest air, 80 percent of Latinos live there. In California's San Joaquin Valley, which has some of the most toxic air in the United States, the air Hispanics breathe is almost 40 percent more polluted.

According to the JAMA report, a small increase of 10 parts of ozone per one billion causes 319 additional deaths per year in New York. And in all the 95 areas surveyed by the researchers, the same slight ozone increase causes 3,767 additional deaths per year.

Few escape the danger. The researchers concluded that the relationship between ozone and mortality takes place even in regions where air pollution is lower than the federal government's limits.

The JAMA report was released while the Bush administration continues to dismantle three decades of environmental progress, most of which, ironically, were instituted by two other Republican presidents, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.

For the last four years, the Bush administration has settled for just weakening the environmental laws that protect us all, especially the Clean Air Act, which in the last 30 years has reduced air pollution by more than half.

But that seems to have been just a warm up for the big game.

"The (2004) election was a validation of the philosophy and the agenda [of the Bush administration]," said Environmental Protection Agency administrator Mike Leavitt. He added that a third of the EPA's work force will be eligible for retirement in the next four years, which will give him the opportunity to replace them with people more attuned to the polluters' agendas.

Likewise, the administration's allies in Congress keep feeding the fire. Rep. Joe Barton (TX-R), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, has said that he plans “a comprehensive revision” (read gutting) of the Clean Air Act, possibly early next year.

Bush, however, has little or no reason to claim a mandate on his environmental actions. According to a new poll by the National Resources Defense Council, a majority of voters are dissatisfied with his administration's environmental policies. And 74% of them back initiatives that save oil and explore new energy technologies.

Perhaps we should remind him what his own administration, specifically the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), found out about the health of the Hispanic community:

"Hispanics bear a disproportionate burden of disease, injury, death, and disability when compared with non-Hispanic whites, the largest racial/ethnic population in the United States," the CDC concluded in a recent report. "For Hispanics in the United States, health disparities can mean decreased quality of life, loss of economic opportunities, and perceptions of injustice."

So we have but to ask ourselves, what is the Bush administration going to bring us this Christmas, a gas mask or the gift of life?

Javier Sierra is a Sierra Club columnist. The Sierra Club is America's oldest, largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization.

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