Sen. Scott Brown is wrong: Carbon pollution is connected to asthma and sick children

Kim Knowlton, in an NRDC Action Fund repost

Recently, Senator Scott Brown denied that carbon emissions and climate change are connected to asthma and sick children, saying “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

In fact, the Senator couldn’t be further off-base.

  • Rising temperatures are associated with lengthening pollen seasons, which could worsen allergy symptoms and have serious health consequences for asthma sufferers.  The burden of these climate change impacts will be most strongly felt by children.

While there are more scientific studies than can be summarized here, the key studies below support the conclusion that carbon emissions and climate change are connected to asthma.

Here’s a quick scan:

1. Climate change is expected to lead to higher concentrations of ground-level ozone (smog):

A warmer climate is projected to increase emissions of the chemicals that form ozone smog, , speed up ozone-forming chemical reactions in the air, and increase the frequency and duration of stagnant air masses that allow pollution to accumulate, worsening health symptoms. Increased temperatures due to human-induced carbon pollution increase ozone smog more in areas with already elevated concentrations, meaning that climate change tends to worsen ozone pollution most in already-polluted areas.

Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States. Karl TR, Melillo JM, Peterson TC (eds.). Cambridge University Press (2009).

2. Ozone triggers and worsens asthma symptoms:

Breathing ozone triggers chest pain, coughing, throat irritation, and congestion; and can worsen bronchitis, emphysema, and asthma. Exposure to ground-level ozone smog can also reduce lung function and inflame the linings of the lungs; repeated exposure may permanently scar lung tissue.

The 2010 Interagency Working Group on Climate Change & Health (IWGCCH)/NIEHS report, “A Human Health Perspective on Climate Change”

It has been firmly established that breathing ozone causes inflammation in the deep lung. Epidemiologic studies of people living in polluted areas show ozone increases the risk of asthma-related hospital visits and premature mortality.  Vulnerability to ozone effects on the lungs is greater for people who spend time outdoors when ozone levels are high, especially those who engage in physical exertion, which results in a higher cumulative dose to the lungs. Children, outdoor laborers, and athletes all are at greater risk than people who spend more time indoors and are less active. Asthmatics are also a vulnerable subgroup.

Kinney PL. 2008. Climate change, air quality, and human health. Am J Prev Med 35:459-467.

3. Rising temperatures and carbon pollution increase pollen production, and are likely to increase allergies, worsening asthma:

Climate change-related increased burden of disease, specifically from allergy and asthma, is anticipated because of changes in the distribution, quantity, and quality of pollen, and lengthening of the pollen season. Asthma and allergic disease will also likely be worsened because of interaction between heavier pollen loads and increasing air pollution from natural and man-made sources.  People with allergy and asthma may expect worsening disease, more days with symptoms, and reduced quality of life as a result of these environmental changes.

KM Shea, RT Truckner, RW Weber, DB Peden. Climate change and allergic disease. Clinical Reviews in Allergy and Immunology 2008; 122(3):443-453.

Rising carbon pollution, or carbon dioxide (CO2), increases the growth and pollen production of plants like ragweed, and the pollen produced may be more allergenic. Along with these health-harming aeroallergens, other effects of burning fossil fuels can pose a “double whammy” to health; for example fossil fuel-produced diesel particles can help deliver allergens deeply into lung airways and irritate immune cells. Climate change effects on plant biology, and subsequent effects on aeroallergens and public health  may help explain the quadrupling of asthma in the United States since 1980.

Ziska L, et al. Rising CO2, Climate Change, and Public Health: Exploring the Links to Plant Biology. Environ Health Perspect 2009; 117(2): 155-158.

4. Children are especially at risk:

Children are particularly vulnerable to the effects of global warming. Global warming compounds the toxicity of fossil-fuel pollutants such as ozone, an important trigger of childhood asthma. Ozone formation from volatile organic chemicals and nitrogen dioxide is accelerated at higher temperatures. Another consequence of a warmer climate is increased plant growth and pollen production, and thus higher levels of natural allergens leading to more allergy and asthma in children.

Perera, F. Children Are Likely to Suffer Most from Our Fossil Fuel Addiction. Environmental Health Perspect 2008; 116 (8):987-990.

Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) reported that asthma is rising in the U.S., with 25 million people now afflicted, and the numbers are increasing every year. The  risk of asthma is highest among children. The greatest increase between 2001 and 2009 was seen among African-American children – an almost 50% increase in asthma rates. One in six (17%) of non-Hispanic black children in 2009 had asthma.

The connections between carbon pollution, climate change, air quality, and health have never been more important, especially for our children.

— Kim Knowlton

JR:  As CP reported last year, Stanford researcher Mark Jacobson, found carbon dioxide pollution not only causes global warming but also forms “domes” that trap other pollutants in urban areas:

Jacobson found that domes of increased carbon dioxide concentrations – discovered to form above cities more than a decade ago – cause local temperature increases that in turn increase the amounts of local air pollutants, raising concentrations of health-damaging ground-level ozone as well as particles in urban air.

Here are some comments from Jacobson in a 2011 email interview:

Global warming increases air pollution where the air pollution is already high but has less effect on air pollution where the air pollution is low.

Warming increases water vapor, and both water vapor and higher temperatures increase ozone where the ozone is already high but have less effect where the ozone is low.

Carbon dioxide domes over cities increase temperatures over the cities above and beyond the heat island effect, and these higher temperatures increase water vapor, and both higher water vapor and higher temperatures increase the rates of chemical air pollution production over cities relative to rural areas.

The results suggest a causal nature of increased air pollution mortality due to increased carbon dioxide where the air pollution is already high. Thus, controlling CO2 emissions at the local level will reduce air pollution and the resulting air pollution mortality.

14 Responses to Sen. Scott Brown is wrong: Carbon pollution is connected to asthma and sick children

  1. VL Brandt says:

    Why do we separate the effects of climate change on human health from the effects of the CAUSES of climate change? Asthma and allergies are bad, but people might start paying attention if we talk about cancer and birth defects.

    Leukemias and lymphomas are among the most common malignancies in humans, and the most prevalent in children. Over the past two decades, their incidence has risen dramatically; the rate of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma alone has doubled. Chemicals and agricultural pesticide exposure, hair dyes, and radiation are all contributing factors, as is chronic antigenic stimulation and autoimmunity (the incidence of both of which are also on the rise).

    The Houston city government’s State of Health report from 2007 offers these shocking statistics: cases of leukemia and lymphoma are twice as high among children living within two miles of the Houston Ship Channel as those living outside the two-mile radius, and exposure to air pollution in the Ship Channel, an area heavily contaminated by petrochemical plants, increases overall cancer risk by a factor of 1000. (See

    We simply cannot be healthy while eating unhealthy food or living in unhealthy environments. It’s terribly important that we realize that even when cancer is treated successfully, we can’t just send these kids back to exposures to contaminated air and water. We’re headed toward the situation in China: Shangba, a small village near chemical plants that have regular “accidents”, is known as the “cancer village” because 80% of its inhabitants have died of cancer, often in their teens or young adulthood. The incidence of birth defects in China has risen 40% since 2001, and the incidence of mysterious neurological diseases has also increased dramatically.

    Asthma may not get people’s attention, but “the emperor of maladies” usually does.

  2. Peter M says:

    Lets hope the people in neighboring Massachusetts have enough sense to get rid of the ‘pretty Boy’ fossil fuel prostitute next year.

    Lets hope his opponent nails him for what he truly is.

  3. sault says:

    He’s toast in Mass. as long as the Democrats run somebody with at least a little charisma and political acumen. No election can be taken for granted when the tebaggers are lurking around, but I wouldn’t be too woriied this time around either.

  4. Kiwiiano says:

    Sorry, Joe, but I think it’s appropriate to rename the Climate Progress web site and emails “Climate Regress”. The news coming out of the US is so relentlessly bad it’s a struggle to find anything that constitutes progress.
    It’s got to the stage that I dread to open your emails, knowing that it will be another catalogue of stupidity, futility, gloom, despond and mass extinctions of toads.

  5. Mark Shapiro says:

    I certainly don’t dispute these points, but from a message perspective, why jump through all these carbon-to-warming-to-ozone- to-asthma and warming-to-pollen-to-asthma hoops?

    Dirty energy is bad (for lots of reasons). Clean energy is good (for lots of reasons).

    Start deploying clean energy wedges now.

  6. Ethan Von Braun says:

    It’s obvious the massive rise in asthma cases in children and adults is directly related to the parabolic increases in CO2 pollution.

    Big CO2 producers should be sued in a class action suit for this.

    How Scott Brown can deny this is beyond me.

  7. Mike Roddy says:

    Peter M and Sault,

    I’ve heard that Brown is favored to keep his seat. Slick, handsome hookers like him seem to do better than the gnarly kind.

  8. Laurie Dougherty says: is holding a rally to protest Scott Brown’s vote against the Clean Air Act at his Boston office tomorrow.
    Friday 5/20 noon – 1 pm
    15 New Sudbury Street (Federal Bldg in Government Center)

    I got an email about it today and plan to go. There’s a Facebook page, but I’m not on Facebook, so haven’t seen it. raised money to put ads about Scott Brown’s position against the Clean Air Act at Boston area transit stops starting in early June.

    Hope you’re right, sault.

  9. Mossy says:

    Both of Brown’s daughters have asthma. Of course he has to deny the link between fossil fuel burning and asthma to justify his vote! Too bad that his daughters aren’t smart enough to connect the dots either!

  10. Mossy says:

    I spoke in person to Jack Richards, Brown’s senior Boston aide, and Dan Diorio, his DC energy and environmental aide. Jack Richard played the devil’s advocate: “How do you know that the rise in asthma isn’t just better diagnostics?” As a medical professional, I explained that the classic wheeze of asthma was hard to miss. Jack was too absorbed at the cleverness of his own comment to focus.

    I emailed him pertinent medical reports (from the AMA, etc, not CP, so that he didn’t tune out.) He wouldn’t respond thereafter.

    Dan Diorio is friendly, and appears to be a good listener, but his training is in policy, not science or medicine, so he seems to always bring the conversation back to why a given policy or regulation “hurts jobs, and raises gas prices in these times of economic hardship.”

    The bottom line is that Brown’s office is listening to the GOP doctrine, and whereas they are polite to their constituents, it really doesn’t matter that we have facts behind us, because they can always make up their own facts, supported by the big money.

  11. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    So Brown’s two daughters have asthma. If he is endowed with even average intelligence, he will know that what he says is bunkum. Surely his children’s physician has spelled things out. In which case, putting the interests of his political patrons before those of children, including his own, is not a fetching look. But he’s a pretty boy, eh? Well as they say, ‘Handsome is as handsome does’.

  12. adelady says:

    His children’s physician? Spell things out? Maybe, maybe not. There’s a bit of genetics here, a bit of houses too clean there, and plenty of other marginally relevant guff to go around.

    I would assume the doc’s at least advised the parents to keep the kids indoors on bad pollen or air pollution warning days. But I wouldn’t guarantee the doc’s connected the dots for them on general air quality and climate issues.

  13. Peter M says:

    Mike Roddy #7

    If the Democrats get a good candidate who confronts Brown with his votes which are far to the right of what Massachusetts expects from its Senators, Brown is not a certain winner next year.

    All it takes is some ‘weird weather event’ roaring into southeastern Massachusetts or Boston that is destructive, or a major mistake by Brown to make the race competitive. Browns vote on the GOP House budget bill- which he says he will support, will not endear him to those in Massachusetts that hope to rely on medicare- both for themselves and their children.

  14. Mark Sandeen says:

    I went to the rally yesterday and the rally organizer said that she and the local rep met with Scott Brown the previous day and his response was – “You’re just environmentalists. The rest of my constituency is just fine with the votes I’ve taken.”

    It seems that it is going to take some serious work to convince him that environmentalists are more than a marginal fringe group.

    The rally organizer reminded us that fossil fuel interests had contributed $1.9 million dollars to Scott Brown’s campaign.

    Polluters are buying his vote.