There are days in the summer when pollution levels are so high that Wendy Bredhold’s two-year-old daughter can’t play outside.
That’s not surprising, given that Bredhold’s town of in Evansville, Indiana sits within 62 miles of 17 coal-fired power plants. The town’s proximity to the power plants doesn’t impact life on a day-to-day basis, Bredhold said, but when the weather gets warm, high air particulate levels mean that children, the elderly and people with respiratory problems are encouraged to stay indoors. When that happens, the daycare where Bredhold’s daughter goes during the day keeps all of the children inside.
“In the summertime, when we have both particulate and ozone episodes, you really do feel like you can’t breathe and you can see the haze on the horizon,” Bredhold, who works in communications for the University of Southern Indiana and is a field organizer for Moms Clean Air Force, said.
Pollution alerts, even those that force some people indoors, aren’t unique to Evansville — they happen all over the country, a result of traffic congestion in some areas and industrial activity in others. But being within driving distance of so many power plants means in Evansville should be among the areas most directly impacted by the Environmental Protection Agency’s new proposal to cut carbon emissions from existing power plants, which was announced last week and will go into effect in 2015. The proposed rule calls for a 25 percent cut in carbon emissions from fossil fuel-fired power plants by 2020 and a 30 percent cut by 2030, compared to 2005 levels. The regulations are meant to mitigate the damaging effects of climate change, but they bring with them major benefits for public health.
Clearing The Air And Helping The Economy
Laura Burns, a former biologist who’s now a stay-at-home mom in Ohio and who also works with Moms Clean Air Force, said that though her children don’t have respiratory problems, many of her friends’ children do — breathing issues that are sometimes so severe that they force the kids to stay inside on certain days.
“I cannot imagine sitting there and watching my kids struggle like that,” she said. “My kids get hot and they get irritable and they want to go inside, but it’s because they made the choice to go in, it’s not because their body isn’t letting them enjoy getting to be a kid and run around in the summer.”
Helping drive down asthma attacks was one of the health benefits of the EPA rule that was lauded by President Obama in the days before and after the rules were released. In his weekly radio address, the president said the rule would result in up to 100,000 fewer asthma attacks and 2,100 fewer heart attacks in its first year alone, and that those numbers would rise as states begin to meet their reduction targets.
In a press call last week with the American Lung Association, the president again addressed the health benefits of the new rule, describing the difficulty parents of kids with asthma face. They can control the air quality inside their homes, he said, but they can’t control the pollution their children are breathing in when they go outside.
“We don’t have to choose between the health of our economy and the health of our children,” Obama said. “As president, and as a parent, I refuse to condemn our children to a planet that’s beyond fixing.”
The health benefits of the rule, in fact, can lead to economic benefits as well. America spends $56 billion every year on asthma alone, and more money still on things like heart disease, stroke, and kidney damage — all ailments that have been linked to exposure to air pollution.
“This is the beginning of a sea change, I think, for bringing those costs in,” said Gary Cohen, President of Health Care Without Harm.
Once you add in the health benefits of reducing carbon emissions, Cohen said, it makes the cost of undertaking regulations like this a lot less daunting. That’s backed up by EPA models, which found the regulations would cost $7.3 billion to $8.8 billion each year, but that the benefits — largely in the form of saved hospital visits and other public health improvements — would total $55 billion to $93 billion by 2030. And the economic benefits of pollution regulations have been demonstrated before. In 1990, new controls on sulfur dioxide emissions actually ended up helping the economy, simply because the economic benefits of a healthier populace outweighed the cost to businesses.
“There’s an enormous cost to the system for kids that go back again and again to the emergency room, or are hospitalized because of asthma, which is exacerbated dramatically from air pollution,” Cohen said.
The reason for these health — and in turn, economic — benefits can be explained by a study published by the Harvard School of Public Health and the Center for Health and the Global Environment. The study on the then-unreleased regulations noted that reducing carbon emissions from power plants means that other, more directly harmful pollutants like sulfur oxides and nitrogen oxides are also reduced, along with the range of health impacts that are tied to pollution exposure.
“The resulting improvements in air quality associated with a strong carbon pollution standard would have nearly immediate benefits by reducing illness and premature deaths,” the authors write. “Moreover, decreased air pollution will help to continue reversing the damage brought by years of acid, nitrogen deposition, and mercury deposition. In so doing, carbon pollution standards can protect public health and help restore forests, waters, and wildlife, while also mitigating climate change.”
An Essential Action
Gretchen Dahlkemper Alfonso, National Field Manager for Moms Clean Air Force, said she’s excited by the EPA’s action on power plants, an action she believes has been kicked down the road for far too long.
“Families are feeling the effects of climate change on a daily basis. We feel it in the extended allergy seasons that our kids and families are suffering from, and we see more high-ozone alert days in the summer where our children with asthma are more prone to asthma attacks and our family members with heart conditions are more prone to heart attacks,” she said. “So we’re really excited to see the EPA taking steps.”
It’s a move that’s important for the health of the public in general, but for minority communities in particular. As President Obama noted in his call with the American Lung Association, low-income communities and communities of color are disproportionately affected by air pollution. In 2012, for instance, a study found that people in low-income neighborhoods breathe in more toxic particles from air pollution than people in wealthy neighborhoods.
That means that on average, these communities suffer the health effects of air pollution more acutely, as well. In 2011, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly one in four low-income Hispanic or Puerto Rican children had been diagnosed with asthma, compared to about one in 13 middle-class or wealthy white children. And as Obama pointed out, African-American children are twice as likely to be hospitalized and four times as likely to die from asthma.
But for some, the health benefits of the new rule transcend party lines. Laura Burns, who said she lives near two power plants, identifies as a Republican, but was clear that despite her views on other issues, the health component of the carbon rule “supersedes everything else.” She also said being brought up a Christian and going to a conservative university taught her the value of caring for God’s creation and helped her see how human activity could harm the planet and, in the process, could harm the people living there, too.
“That was where I learned to really, really value the world around us,” she said. “Because I don’t care what vocabulary you choose — this is all we get.”
Katie Roemer, a maternity nurse in Oakland, California, said the rule hits home personally for her, not just because she’s treated many patients with asthma but because her son has asthma. As a maternity nurse, too, Roemer said the rule is particularly important; exposure to air pollution has been linked to birth defects and low birth weight.
“Ultimately, it will save lives,” Roemer said of the EPA’s plan. “Asthma can kill you — if you can’t get treatment or you don’t have access to medication or access to medical care, or if you don’t get medical care in time you can die of asthma if you have a severe attack.”
Nursing union National Nurses United also supports the rule, citing data from the World Health Organization that show 4.3 million people die from illnesses linked to air pollution around the world each year.
“The EPA’s new regulations are a vital step in the right direction that will save lives and begin to address in a serious way our nation’s negative contribution to the global climate crisis,” the group said in a statement to ThinkProgress.
While the new rule is an important step, Roemer said she wants to see reductions that go further than 30 percent below 2005 levels. Because cutting carbon emissions doesn’t address asthma alone. The health impacts of climate change — including heat waves, drought, flooding and increased spread of vector-borne diseases that once were rare in the U.S. — are far more extensive than respiratory conditions.
“I’d like to see us do what we need to do so that people can live in a way that’s healthy, and that they can continue to breathe and not suffer the long-term health impacts of global warming,” she said. “As a health professional, I want to see that dealt with, both for my patients and for myself and my family.”