Air Pollution and the Golden Rule

How often does an opportunity come along to put the Golden Rule into practice? We now have a chance to ‘treat others as we wish to be treated’ and to do so on a grand scale. We can treat our neighbors and, indeed, the whole world as ourselves while at the same time supporting our health and well-being.

The New England Journal of Medicine recently reported on a statistically significant increase in life expectancy as a result of reducing air pollution. The relationship between air pollution and illnesses such as asthma, heart disease, and certain cancers is well-proven. However, for the first time, actual increases in lifespan have been verified as a result of cleaner air.

Air pollution is the result of how we produce energy, use our cars and appliances, and heat and cool our homes. The larger our ‘carbon footprint,’ the more air pollution we cause, which in turn leads to serious illness and premature death. This air pollution is primarily due to the burning of fossil fuels: gasoline and diesel for our vehicles, coal for electricity, and natural gas for heating and other energy uses.

Our combustion of these fuels as individuals and as a society contributes to heart disease and stroke. Repeated epidemiological studies worldwide have demonstrated these connections, especially in relation to particulate matter in air pollution. Particulate matter, in fact, may prove to be the biggest culprit of all air-pollution components.

Particulates are generated from such sources as vehicle emissions, tire fragmentation, industry, power generation, smelting, demolition, forest fires, and volcanoes. We have no control over volcanoes, of course, but we can work to modify other sources. Other components of air pollution include carbon monoxide, nitrates, sulfur dioxide, ozone, lead, and tobacco smoke.

The Environmental Protection Agency has declared that tens of thousands of people die each year from breathing tiny particles in the environment. And Science magazine recently published a study that showed death rates in 90 large U.S. cities rising by 0.5{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} for every tiny increase of particulates (10 micrograms per cubic meter). It’s also clear that people with asthma are especially vulnerable to nitrogen dioxide from power plants and other fossil-fuel-burning sources. Additionally, the American Cancer Society demonstrated that long-term exposure to particulate air pollution raises the risk of cardiovascular death by 12{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} (also for every 10 micrograms per cubic meter).

So here we are in the early years of the 21st century. We are well-informed by science, aware of the harm we cause through our choices and capable of profoundly decreasing the amount of pain and suffering that occur all around us. Can we afford to continue to ignore the facts, or can we as individuals take collective actions to improve health and extend life spans? If we choose to reduce our carbon footprint locally, we can contribute to the global effects of decreasing our dependence on foreign oil while simultaneously helping to alter global warming and climate change.

All it takes to have such a major impact on the world is to make choices that improve our health. These include choosing cars with high gas mileage and cleaner-burning engines, insulating our homes effectively, and improving the efficiency of our appliances. Making choices for greener energy sources (such as wind and solar) can also have a huge impact on our health and our neighbors’ health and improve the well-being of the community and even the whole world.

We all have a deep reservoir of power by way of these choices. The result can be large, and at the same time, provide the quiet inner peace that comes with bringing the Golden Rule to practice for the public health. For more actions you can take to make better choices for our health and the environment, visit the Environmental Protection Agency at

Dr. Robert P. Naparstek is Medical Director of Caritas Good Samaritan Occupational Health Services and Chair of the Mass. Medical Society’s Committee on Environmental and Occupational Health.

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