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Communicating the health effects of air pollution

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To the Editor: Air pollution causes 3000 deaths each year in Australia.1 To put this in perspective: the national road toll in 2014 was 1153. Deaths from air pollution are due to both acute and chronic effects, and the principal diagnoses are of cardiac and respiratory disease. Reform of Australia’s national air quality standards and regulatory mechanisms is currently underway, with the federal government calling for public consultation in the revision of the National Environmental Protection Measure (Ambient Air Quality) for particulates. Engagement in this consultation process requires that the risks be communicated in a way that the public can understand.

A large published cohort study can be of assistance.2 The mortality impacts of both particulate air pollution less than 2.5 µm in diameter (PM2.5) and of cigarette smoking for a large American cohort were followed up for 16 years. The relative risk of all-cause mortality associated with smoking 22 cigarettes a day was 2.58, while the relative risk associated with each 10 µg/m3 of PM2.5 exposure was 1.04 (95% CI, 1.01–1.08), making smoking 24 times as risky to survival (relative risks combine exponentially; 1.04 raised to the power of 24 = 2.58). Assuming that the effects are linear, breathing…