Canadian Journal of Statistics

Nonparametric smoothing in the analysis of air pollution and respiratory illness

Journal Article


While most of epidemiology is observational, rather than experimental, the culture of epidemiology is still derived from agricultural experiments, rather than other observational fields, such as astronomy or economics. The mismatch is made greater as focus has turned to continue risk factors, multifactorial outcomes, and outcomes with large variation unexplainable by available risk factors. The analysis of such data is often viewed as hypothesis testing with statistical control replacing randomization. However, such approaches often test restricted forms of the hypothesis being investigated, such as the hypothesis of a linear association, when there is no prior empirical or theoretical reason to believe that if an association exists, it is linear. In combination with the large nonstochastic sources of error in such observational studies, this suggests the more flexible alternative of exploring the association. Conclusions on the possible causal nature of any discovered association will rest on the coherence and consistency of multiple studies. Nonparametric smoothing in general, and generalized additive models in particular, represent an attractive approach to such problems. This is illustrated using data examining the relationship between particulate air pollution and daily mortality in Birmingham, Alabama; between particulate air pollution, ozone, and SO2 and daily hospital admissions for respiratory illness in Philadelphia; and between ozone and particulate air pollution and coughing episodes in children in six eastern U.S. cities. The results indicate that airborne particles and ozone are associated with adverse health outcomes at very low concentrations, and that there are likely no thresholds for these relationships.

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