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Do you know what you're breathing?

Updated on January 29, 2011
Twice as many non-smokers as smokers are dying of respiratory disease in the US. Why?
Twice as many non-smokers as smokers are dying of respiratory disease in the US. Why? | Source

With the endless debate about smoking, you’d think that there was some sort of effort to make the world a cleaner, safer place, at least for breathing. Apparently not. According to the CDC, 1.4 million Americans die of respiratory diseases every year, and 400,000 or so of them are smokers. So what’s killing the other 1.1 million?

Call me pedantic, but doesn’t something that’s killing so many people deserve a look? Or at least as much attention as the multi million dollar anti-smoking campaigns? To the best of my knowledge, not a word has ever been said on this subject.

The air pollution issue has long since disappeared off the radar. Clean air laws, etc. are supposed to be doing the job of making the air safe to breathe. They’re not, if these figures are accurate.

One of the interesting things about the epidemiology of smoking is that statistically more people are now dying of respiratory diseases than can possibly be attributed to smoking. Even if you assume that these figures are a simple breakdown of percentages of smokers and non-smokers, say a third or so are smokers, and the rest aren’t, it would mean that smokers and non-smokers are dying of respiratory diseases at roughly the same rate.

Meaning non-smokers are dying anyway. Why? There’s obvious culprits- Car exhausts, which produce the equivalent of a packet of cigarettes in carbon pollution every half mile, (Actual cigarettes produce a fraction of this amount of pollution, over a period of hours), and industrial pollution, which produces unquantified amounts of materials round the clock. The carbon particulate matter, which also often includes the products of other types of combustion and many different compounds, including lead, (which is lethal to tissue), is microscopic, can enter the lungs like a million spanners, and according to Australian research, do a lot of damage.

Is there an anti-car, anti-pollution lobby? Only in theory, and only on a micro scale compared to the anti-smoking lobby, which is itself now a global industry. A cigarette is portrayed as a crime against humanity, but producing billions of tons of chemicals and putting them into the air for people to breathe is just fine, thanks so much, you wonderful people.

In Southeast Asia, a cocktail of pollutants known endearingly as the Brown Haze, which covers the entire region, is estimated to kill about half a million people per year. What’s being done about it? Nothing. In China, pollution literally reduces visibility to a block or so in some major cities. China has experienced a huge spike in serious diseases since the big economic boom.

So- How good is the epidemiology? One of the most basic principles of epidemiology is to consider environmental conditions. Air pollution is rarely if ever related to respiratory diseases as a factor in assessments. Statistically, the correlation between respiratory deaths and diseases and a simple comparison of smokers and non-smokers is looking pretty inaccurate, or at the very least, outdated.

Another interesting bit of information about cigarettes also didn’t get much interest, when it came out. Recently an anti-smoking commercial targeted the number of chemicals in cigarettes, including:

  • Pesticides
  • Lead
  • Herbicides
  • Petrol products
  • Sulfur
  • Mercury

These are the basic products of pollution. No mention was made of the fact that these materials, in any other product, would be banned, and the product taken off the shelves. In fact, this chemical breakdown, if accurate, identifies more externally introduced toxins than could possibly exist in any form of tobacco.

Tobacco is just a plant.

It doesn’t naturally contain any of those elements, and can only contain a few of them in various mixes, even if grown in contaminated soil.

Nor should it contain them, when put on the market.

Is that so hard to understand?

You’d think that information could have been released several generations earlier, when it might have made a difference. It’s not like people didn’t know how to detect these chemicals in the early 1900s.

Double standard? This information is also remarkable for the fact that these materials also form the basic components of air pollution, of which millions or perhaps billions of tons per day is produced, worldwide. There’s no place on Earth which is free of them.

The “healthy breathing lobby” hasn’t had much to say on the subject of air pollution or anything else possibly related to those millions of annual deaths. Neither has anyone else. Apparently all these highly motivated people are prepared to be outraged about smoking but not even vaguely interested in the fact that far larger numbers of people are dying of other, unidentified causes.

No level of logic seems to have been applied to actual statistics about deaths and respiratory medical conditions. As a matter of fact, respiratory ailments have been on the upsurge everywhere since global industrialization, and the anti-smoking campaign doesn’t seem to have dented the death toll much.

I’ll believe in the infallibility of science when I see an infallible scientist. I’ll believe in the infallibility of medicine when I see an infallible research hospital. I’ll believe in statistics when I see someone making an effort to analyze them, not simply quoting them selectively and apparently not even understanding them, or even seeing logical contradictions in their own statements.

I’ll never, somehow, quite be able to believe in information which is based on lousy logic and avoiding basic principles of epidemiology. Air pollution is a fact. People breathe in most of the Table of Elements just walking down the street. Until that fact receives the courtesy of acknowledgement, I’m going to be highly dubious about the ethics and sincerity of the supposedly infallible public health saints.


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    • Debby Bruck profile image

      Debby Bruck 6 years ago

      Dear Paul. I understand your frustration with the status quo. You'd like to see more action to clean up the environment in an effort to reduce respiratory disease and lung cancer. However, you may do a web search to a gold mine of information that has been done correlating air pollution to respiratory ailments. For example: Air Pollution and Respiratory Disease - Annual Review of Public Health, 2(1):397

      Blessings, Debby

    • Tom Cornett profile image

      Tom Cornett 7 years ago from Ohio

      People don't want to admit that their automobiles, use of electricity, connections to industry, etc are killing people. Smoking has become the politicized blame target.

      Electrical Linemen have the highest cancer rate of any profession. The radiation from power lines is very intense. We are bombarded with radiation from TV and cell phone towers constantly. This very well could add to the problem.

      Great hub here. Like Hello, hello said,"It is and eye opener."

    • Hello, hello, profile image

      Hello, hello, 7 years ago from London, UK

      Gosh that wasan eye opener. Thank you for a very impressive hub.