Think air pollution might give you asthma, at worst? It's a little more serious than that, according to new research in the journal The Lancet:
Air pollution triggers more heart attacks than using cocaine and poses as high a risk of sparking a heart attack as alcohol, coffee and physical exertion, scientists said on Thursday.
Sex, anger, marijuana use and chest or respiratory infections and can also trigger heart attacks to different extents, the researchers said, but air pollution, particularly in heavy traffic, is the major culprit.
This isn't to say that cocaine is safer than breathing polluted air. A heavy cocaine user in clear Billings, Montana, the American city with the best air quality, would probably still have a higher chance of a heart attack than a health nut living in smoggy Long Beach, California. But the "population effect" of air pollution is greater because more people are exposed to bad air than cocaine. That makes it a bigger public health problem.
As Matt Yglesias notes, these findings have implications for the debate over health care costs in the United States. After all, "expending resources on preventing heart attacks by creating cleaner air is a wildly more cost-effective way of improving quality of life than is treating heart attacks."
That's certainly true. But the funny (or unfortunate) thing is that, because the sources of air pollution are broadly distributed and the health problems it leads to are slow to develop, people just don't see a very clear link between cause and effect. As a result, we sound the alarm far and wide and muster resources from NASA when a handful of people say their Toyotas accelerate on their own, but don't do much to prevent all the heart attacks caused by the well-functioning cars in our cities.