Air Pollution Damaging Every Organ in the Body?

Jacobus Erasmus, 22 June 2019

A recent news report has the headline “Study finds air pollution may be damaging ‘every organ in the body’”. The news report claims that “Air pollution may be harming nearly every cell in the human body, according [to] latest research”. The report is referring to the article Air Pollution and Noncommunicable Diseases: A Review by the Forum of International Respiratory Societies’ Environmental Committee, Part 2: Air Pollution and Organ Systems. Let us make some comments about the article and the news report.

First, the article is neither a scientific study nor an original research paper but, rather, it is simply a review by a committee. The article (or committee) does not make any new scientific contribution or discovery but simply picks (or cherry-picks?) some articles (many of which are old) and then briefly discusses and summarises their conclusions. Accordingly, the news report is mistaken in referring to the article as “a study” and “latest research”.

Second, the article makes it clear that many (or most, or perhaps all?) of the studies it discusses do not show that the correlations or associations between air pollution and the diseases are causal. That is to say, the article admits that air pollution is not the cause of many of the damages to organs. As the article states:

It is important to note that for many of the diseases, the associations with exposures to air pollution in observational epidemiologic studies are not causal and may be subject to residual confounding due to other factors, such as smoking, lower socioeconomic status, and neighborhood factors.

The authors of the article simply review or discuss the selected studies because they believe that “exposure dose and time relationships and animal studies” raise the probability (even if just a tiny bit) that air pollution contributes to the relevant diseases. Why does the news report not mention this important admission of the article? One is tempted to think that the news reporter did not read the article.

Third, the article ignores studies that conclude that the dangers of air pollution are exaggerated. Why, for example, does the committee of the article not discuss articles such as Air quality and acute deaths in California, 2000–2012 or Scientific Distortions in Fine Particulate Matter Epidemiology or EPA’S Proposed Ozone Rule: Potential Impacts on Manufacturing or Epidemiology Without Biology: False Paradigms, Unfounded Assumptions, and Specious Statistics in Radiation Science? How can we take the article seriously if it does not engage with opposing views and studies?

In conclusion, should we be disturbed by news reports such as the above? No, I do not think so. Such news reports tend to misinterpret scientific studies and only report on the negative studies while ignoring the positive. Furthermore, news reporters seem to be unaware that much of the articles that appear in scientific and medical journals are just plain wrong. As the editor of the medical journal The Lancet, Richard Horton, says

Much of the scientific literature, perhaps half, may simply be untrue. Afflicted by studies with…an obsession for pursuing fashionable trends of dubious importance, science has taken a turn towards darkness. ... In their quest for telling a compelling story, scientists too often sculpt data to fit their preferred theory of the world. ... Journal editors deserve their fair share of criticism too. We aid and abet the worst behaviours. ... Our love of “significance” pollutes the literature with many a statistical fairy-tale. We reject important confirmations. ... And individual scientists, including their most senior leaders, do little to alter a research culture that occasionally veers close to misconduct.

Thus, the reasonable thing for a news reporter to do is report on a study only once it has been critically and sufficiently evaluated by the scientific community of experts.