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Comparing pollution to smoking is disputed by Division of Air Quality toxicologist

Published February 7, 2008 1:23 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2008, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

A Utah Division of Air Quality toxicologist said Wednesday breathing polluted air, even on bad days, isn't the same as smoking cigarettes.

Steven Packham, who made a presentation to the state's Air Quality Board, said statements that have appeared in the media - comparing air pollution to smoking five to 10 cigarettes a day - are wrong.

Making such a comparison, he said, minimizes the serious health effects of smoking and is "as counterproductive to finding a solution to the problem [of air pollution] as personal or public denial that there is a problem."

But Brian Moench, founder of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, said Packham is ignoring a wealth of medical science.

Moench said air pollution has a quarter of the impact of smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. In an attempt to make that more understandable, it's likely he and his colleagues have used the five cigarettes a day comparison in the past.

"If you look at epidemiological data, then what we have stated publicly is certainly valid," he said. "You could certainly say it's an oversimplification to equate air pollution to [five] cigarettes, but physiologically [their effects] are very similar."

The physician said both trigger an inflammatory response in the arterial system that affects virtually every organ, most notably the heart. And people who live in areas with dirty air, including young children, inhale pollution with every breath, making it a greater public health hazard than smoking.

Packham doesn't buy it.

Assuming a person smokes five cigarettes a day for 50 years, he said, that person would breathe in a lifetime dose of one-fifth of a pound of nicotine and more than 2 pounds of particulate matter containing at least 19 known carcinogens.

Packham estimates that Utahns inhale 0.2 milligrams of particulate matter a day from air pollution, or a lifetime dose of .0097 pounds - 200 times less than that inhaled by a five-cigarette-a-day smoker.

Moench, however, said Packham's breakdown of toxicologic data still doesn't prove that air pollution is somehow better than cigarette smoke.

"If he's assuming the health consequences have a linear relationship with the volume of exposure, that may be part of his error," Moench said.

Air Quality Board member Stead Burwell said he was troubled by the Division of Air Quality sending a message that may be construed by the public to mean air pollution isn't bad.

"It's true that you can make the claim it's not like cigarette smoking, and I accept certain elements of that," he said, but "there is a basic premise that breathing polluted air is [detrimental] to your health."

lrosetta@sltrib.com