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Breathing Easy is Getting Harder

Pollution and solutions aired at league forum.

Air pollution is the third greatest cause of death per 100,000 people in the nation, just behind tobacco and obesity.

That was the analysis of Dudley F. Rochester, MD, during his presentation on "Air Pollution and Health" before the Alexandria Chapter, League of Women Voters, last Thursday at The Lyceum. "It's amazing how medical literature is concentrating on this. It's multiplying everyday," Rochester said.

Placing particular emphasis on the Mirant Power Plant at the north end of Old Town, Rochester noted, "Seventy five percent of air pollutants in Virginia come from power plants. And 71 percent of the power plants in Virginia burn fossil fuel." Mirant's primary fuel is coal.

Rochester is professor emeritus, University of Virginia School of Medicine and past president, American Lung Association of Virginia. He headed the Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine at the university from 1976 to 1993. He has authored numerous papers and treatises on pulmonary issues.

"Our research shows that the Mirant plant is the number one stationary air polluter in this area," Lillian J. White, co-president of the chapter stated in kicking off the meeting. "Alexandria gets the pollution while D.C. gets the power."

The League has been concerned with air quality issue since 1960, according to Ann Krupp, first vice president and moderator. In introducing Rochester, Julie Crenshaw, said, "Politicians are making the decisions and they don't understand the science."

A MEMBER OF the League, Crenshaw is the chairperson of the Council of Governments Air Quality Public Advisory Committee. She has presented workshops on air quality for the Virginia Sierra Club and has spoken at wind energy conferences.

Rochester noted that vehicles being the primary cause of air pollution is a fallacy. "Sixty four percent of mobile pollution comes from boats, lawn mowers and tractors," he said.

This was buttressed by William Skrabak, division chief, Alexandria Transportation & Environmental Services Administration. "One lawn mower produces more pollution than 100 automobiles," he said. "Construction equipment is another major source of air pollution."

The pulmonary mortality rate in Virginia and the District of Columbia greatly exceeds the national average, according to Rochester. "In the nation, there are 11 deaths per 100,000 population from pulmonary causes. In Virginia that rises to 18 per 100,000, and in D.C., it goes to 24 per 100,000," he said.

"Deaths in the United States from air pollution each year is over 30,000. It has greatly increased infant mortality," Rochester said.

"A 25 percent reduction in air pollution would result in a 25 percent reduction in air pollution diseases. The per capita cost of health for air pollution induced diseases would fall by approximately $177 per every 10 grams of reduction in air pollution," he pointed out.

Rochester acknowledged that this is not just an area or even national problem. It is world wide, he stressed. "When there is a dust storm in Africa we detect particles in Virginia," he said.

"But, air pollution greatly diminishes the farther from the source. This has been proven by studies."

ONE OF THE corrective measures that could be taken to cut down on air pollutants from coal burning plants is the adoption of a Clean Smoke Stack law as they have done in North Carolina, Rochester said. He acknowledged a bill on this subject has been introduced in the Virginia legislature but has not been acted upon.

However, he also said, "It's too early to tell if the North Carolina law is having any real impact. It was only adopted two years ago. It probably will need to be in effect four or five years before good data is available."

A report by the Clean Air Task Force on the "Health Impacts of Air Pollution from Washington, D.C., Area Power Plants" distributed at the meeting noted, "For more than three decades, the nation's oldest and dirtiest power plants have avoided meeting tighter air pollution standards that new plants must meet."

A study by the Harvard School of Public Health examined pollutants released by power plants near Washington. The key findings, as stated in the study's summary, included:

*20 percent of the deaths per year nationwide attributed to power plant pollution occur in this area.

*If the five plants in the area used readily available pollution control equipment, approximately 75 percent of current deaths, asthma attacks, emergency room visits, and hospitalizations could be avoided.

*Disadvantaged groups are especially vulnerable and more impacted by the five plants' emissions. They would receive the greatest benefits from corrective measures.

*Requiring power plants to reduce air pollution would yield tremendous improvements in air quality and public health.