The air that we breathe

18 July, 2013

We read a lot about ‘risk’ in our office.

Comparing the risks of certain things is always tricky and sometimes the facts just get lost in what seems to be an escalating noise about how threatening and unsafe the world is in general.

Several things have caught my eye in the last week or so. Amongst them are a couple of rather strange attacks on the safety, or otherwise, of supplements. The first was a study supposedly showing that essential fatty acids caused prostate cancer. It was reported in the mainstream media without any fact or sense checks – and indeed the spin put on it turned out to be not just misleading but false.

High blood concentrations of the omega-3 fatty acid docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) were linked to a higher risk of high-grade prostate cancer but links with other omega-3’s were inconclusive (see story right). Worse, the men in the study were taking finasteride, a drug used to treat benign enlarged prostate, but which has been shown to raise the risk of high-grade cancer. Indeed, in this study high-grade cancers were most common in men taking the drug. You can bet that part didn’t make it into the newspapers.

A second study reported that antioxidant flavonoids could promote cancer. Or more specifically, in a test tube the flavoniod luteolin suppressed breast cancer cells but encouraged the growth of endometrial cancer cells. Because luteolin is sometimes recommended as a supplement for children with autism the story was spun to suggest that the supplement could give autistic children cancer – not a conclusion that the authors of the study actually made.

These tedious stories, it could be argued, come with the territory of anything ‘alternative’. But in the end they say more about what we don’t understand about the collection of diseases that we choose to call ‘cancer’ than what we do understand about antioxidants.

I suspect these attacks on ‘soft’ targets mirror a growing overwhelment and awareness of the mess we have made of the world and our own apparent helplessness to do anything about it.

But if you want something real to worry about try paying attention to the barrage of recent evidence on the health effects of air pollution. A new study estimates that over two million deaths occur each year as a direct result of human-caused outdoor air pollution.

That’s not just a problem of the developed world. Emerging economies such as China are feeling the effects too.

A recent study found that China’s reliance on coal as a primary fuel creates so much pollution that it cuts the average life span of Chinese citizens by five and a half years. In countries like Bangladesh the pollution so thick that you can almost chew on it.

Lest we feel smug in the developed world, two new papers have just been published reaffirming the link between air pollution to higher rates of both lung cancer and heart disease.

In the UK things are hotting up as the Supreme Court has ordered the European court to fast-track a ground breaking case led by leading eco law firm Client Earth against the UK government over its failure to meet air quality standards. The case alleges that UK the environment secretary Owen Paterson has failed to protect people from the effects of air pollution, which causes 29,000 early deaths in the UK every year – more than obesity and alcohol combined.

We’re supposed to be slowing down, burning less fossil fuel and reassessing our suicidal business-as-usual approach. But all signs are that we are accelerating. Air pollution – and its knock on effect on climate change – is a result of that.  Earlier this year our atmospheric CO2 levels reached 400ppm. The safe upper limit according to climate scientists is 350ppm. It was a milestone that was barely acknowledged as politicians as continued to bang on about growth and progress.

It’s not clear what the nexus of air pollution and climate change will mean for our health. The World Health Organization (WHO) has gone so far as to say that basic and necessary science like identifying the world’s most polluted areas is difficult because, as astonishing as it may seem in 2013, many of these cities don’t have monitoring systems in place. In the mean time there is evidence that some antioxidants and essential fats may even help protect us from the worst of this man-made health problem.

What I do know is that we can, based on the best evidence at hand, choose whether or not to take supplements and which CAM therapies to use. But none of us can choose whether or not to breathe. Let’s stop lashing out at things that carry very little risk and start dealing with the very big and very real risks threatening our present and future well being.

Pat Thomas, Editor