Air quality a concern

On Tuesday, Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR), Temple University’s Students for Environmental Action (SEA) and the Clean Air Council hosted a presentation of PSR’s latest public health report. Titled “A Breath of Fresh Air: How

On Tuesday, Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR), Temple University’s Students for Environmental Action (SEA) and the Clean Air Council hosted a presentation of PSR’s latest public health report.

Titled “A Breath of Fresh Air: How Smarter Energy Choices Can Protect the Health of Pennsylvanians,” the report examines Pennsylvania’s air quality and its effect on public health.

The event featured PSR consultant Dr. Kent Bransford, a practicing oncologist who spent five years educating public health communities nationwide on the importance of energy use and air quality.

“This issue affects all of us,” Bransford said.

Bransford discussed this new report by highlighting how the state’s increasing levels of air pollutants impact health, and examined the benefits of renewable energy sources. According to Bransford, mercury, ozone and particulate matter, and climate change are the most significant factors affecting Pennsylvania’s air quality.

“Most of our energy sources are from fossil fuels which began with the industrial revolution, and it hasn’t changed since,” Bransford explained. “We’re using old tactics in the 21st century.”

These pollutants are typically caused by nonrenewable fossil fuels found in vehicles and power plants. A prime example is the Keystone Power Plant located in western Pennsylvania, which produces the largest source of mercury pollution in the country, emitting almost one ton of mercury and mercury compounds into the air in 2001.

Mercury is emitted from power plant smokestacks, and enters the food chain through waterways. High mercury levels are especially dangerous for infants and children, and can be transmitted from mother to fetus. In adults, it can affect a number of organ systems – in particular – the brain and central nervous system. The report notes that according to the EPA, one in every six women of childbearing age has dangerous levels of mercury in her blood.

Fish are a big cause for concern because they often carry high levels of mercury. In 2003, Pennsylvania issued 116 new mercury fish advisories warning the public about the potential health risks from mercury contamination in rivers and lakes throughout the state.

The report advises consumers to be cautious about the type, source and amount of fish they eat, encouraging them to visit the EPA Web site or local and statewide advisories.

It also ranks 42 fish on a scale of lowest to highest mercury levels. Catfish, crabs and lobster are among those having the lowest mercury levels, while mackerel, shark, swordfish and tilefish are ranked as having the highest, and are to be avoided. This “Healthy Fish, Healthy Families” guide can be found online at

Particle pollution and ozone smog are on the rise. Particle pollution (tiny, invisible particles) is the result of fossil fuel combustion sources such as coal-fired power plants and gasoline powered cars.

According to the American Lung Association’s “2004 State of the Air” report, 29 Pennsylvania counties, which contain 80 percent of the state’s population, earned an “F” for ozone.

Coal-fired power plants and vehicle emissions were contributors according to the report. Pennsylvania’s coal-fired plants release more toxins such as mercury, acid gas and toxic metals into the air than any other state except North Carolina and Ohio.

Cars and power plants emit greenhouse gases into the atmosphere that trap heat, contributing to global warming, consequently causing Pennsylvania to be ranked as “the third worst state in the nation for total emissions of pollution contributing to global warming,” the report states.

“This is a very complex issue,” Bransford said. “The choices we make affect our air quality. This is why we need to address these issues and figure out what we can do, for our health, our children’s health and our lungs’ health.”

Bransford emphasized the importance of efficiency, or getting more out of what we use, as the primary way to see results. He also highlighted fuel-efficient cars and the use of wind turbines as energy sources.

The “Breath of Fresh Air” report lists additional ways Pennsylvania can combat air pollution including the passage of a statewide legislation expanding renewable energy sources and implementing national policies to reduce global warming pollution caused by industries.

The state is taking notice and beginning to make progress. New programs include PECO Wind, an energy alternative that offers customers in southeastern Pennsylvania the option to purchase wind energy, and Governor Rendell’s proposed legislation to create a twice-a-year green sales tax holiday. This would allow consumers to purchase energy-efficient appliances free of sales tax.

PSR is a public health advocacy organization located in Washington, DC. The group consists of 30,000 members nationwide, and in 1985 received the Nobel Peace Prize with their affiliate, International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. The group will continue traveling throughout Pennsylvania until Oct. 1 to speak with public health professionals about their role in teaching the effect of unclean air and climate change on public health.

Andrea Boston can be reached at

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