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Robert Linkul’s lungs collapsed six times in the hospital in July 2009. Doctors broke two of his ribs, removed the lobe of his left lung and one-third of his upper lung; they slit through his lateral, oblique and intercostal muscles in a race to beat lung cancer. The aftermath of his life-saving surgery encouraged him to advocate for cleaner air.
Linkul, 31, never smoked a cigarette in his life.
Though doctors are unsure of what caused the cancer, he said they believe he inhaled or ingested a cancerous substance. He was diagnosed in March of 2009, two weeks after coughing and sneezing blood at work.
He devotes his life to health and fitness as the strength and fitness director at Arden Hills Resort Club and Spa, holding a master’s degree in personal training. He said he can physically feel the difference in Sacramento’s air quality as a result of his lobectomy.
“If you were standing in your house and standing on a table or a desk, you get that bit of dust in the air,” he said. “You could package that in a bag and breathe that. That’s the kind of condensed chambered air I breathe on bad days. It’s really, really noticeable. It burns my throat; it burns my lungs; it burns my eyes.”
The “bit of dust in the air” Linkul described is a mixture of solid and liquid particles called particulate matter. They can be coarse particles such as dust, smoke and soot or fine particles invisible to the naked eye. Particle pollution sticks to a person’s lungs and can pass through the bloodstream, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
(Image by: U.S. EPA)
He testified last month in front of the EPA to support strengthening the national air quality standard for fine particulate matter (PM 2.5). The effort is a requirement under the Clean Air Act, the law that defines the EPA’s oversight over air quality control.
The July hearing in Sacramento was one of two in the nation for the public to testify in-person on whether the standard should be revised or remain the same. The other hearing took place on the East Coast. However, it is not too late for people to submit comments. The EPA will take public comments until August 31.
Linkul has volunteered with the American Lung Association in California (ALAC) since recuperating from his lobectomy in 2009. He chaired the Sacramento Fight for Air Walk and continues to chair the annual Fight for Air Climb hosted by the American Lung Association.
He said not everyone understands the difference between his problem with air quality and asthma patients whose lungs do not expand fully to take in air.
“My lungs are sensitive to the point that if the quality of the air is not good I get sick from it,” he said. “That’s been a big reason I’ve been outspoken about it and have been involved with the American Lung Association and wanted to make a difference.”
The current fine particulare matter standard is 15 μg per cubic meter annually and 35 μg per cubic meter daily. The EPA wants to change the long-term annual standard to 12-13 μg per cubic meter and retain 35 μg per cubic meter daily standard.
The Clean Air Act stipulates that the EPA should develop standards solely on the basis of the effect on public health and not business. The 2012 proposed standard change was the result of a 2009 U.S. Court judgment claiming that the current standard does not protect the public health.
The American Petroleum Institute (API), which represents more than 500 natural and oil gas companies, opposes changing the fine particulate matter standard, stating that the science is questionable.
Howard J. Feldman, director of regulatory and scientific affairs at the American Petroleum Institute, said in his July testimony to the EPA that he is not convinced that the standard needs to be changed based on the progress states are already making.
“EPA has not proven a cause and effect between PM 2.5 below the current standards and health effects,” he said. “It has failed to adequately address confounding factors.”
Moreover, he said in his statement that API is concerned about the effect it will have on businesses and progress made thus far.
“Of course, tightening these standards would lead to additional non-attainment areas during the coming decade, even though air quality progress will continue without changing these standards,” he said. “These additional non-attainment areas will stymie job and business growth when the economy is still struggling to recover.”
The concern of the EPA overstepping its boundaries was also expressed on Aug. 21 by a Federal Appeals court that overturned the EPA’s Cross-State Air Pollution Rule meant to update the 2005 Clean Air Interstate Rule under the Clean Air Act. Judges ruled that the EPA’s decision to use a cap-and-trade system to mitigate cross-state pollution exceeded its role by forcing states to reduce more than their fair share.
ALAC air quality and health executive director Bonnie Holmes said that the American Lung Association does not believe that tighter standards will negatively affect the economy.
“Over the past 40 years, our economy has grown by over 60 percent nationally over the last 40 years, but we’ve also cut air pollution by about that same amount so clearly as we developed tighter standards over the years it has not negatively affected our economy,” she said. “I think it’s helping our economy to develop into a more sustainable greener economy.”
The American Lung Association is advocating for stricter standards than the EPA. It wants to see a fine particulate matter annual standard of 11 μg per cubic meter and short-term standard of 25 μg per cubic meter. Holmes said these numbers would prevent 35,700 deaths every year nationally.
She said the particulate matter can travel to the brain, cause heart attacks and strokes, worsen existing lung conditions and reduce lung growth in children.
Sacramento is ranked the sixth smoggiest city in the nation. In the Sacramento-Arden Arcade-Yuba City region, more than 40,000 kids have asthma, 143,000 adults have asthma, 603,000 have cardiovascular disease and nearly 80,000 have chronic bronchitis.
Linkul said he is cancer free. He said he understands that his case is unique and that changing the standards may be challenging for some businesses, but ultimately, public health is more important.
“I think the health of the individuals in this city and this state and this country are more important than a lot of the financial issues that we have,” he said. “If we’re not here, then that’s not really the point.”
What do you think the new fine particulate matter standard should be?