May is Asthma Awareness month: an opportunity to highlight a serious, chronic respiratory disease that affects the quality of life of nearly 26 million Americans, including more than seven million children. The exact causes of asthma are unknown, however there are several environmental factors, especially air pollution, that play a key role in causing asthma and/or “triggering” flare ups, episodes or attacks.
Emissions from cars, diesel engines, fires, road dust, and coal and natural gas-burning power plants all contribute to air pollution. These emissions contain many hazardous air pollutants (such as nitrogen dioxide – NO2), fine particles (such as soot) and ozone, which can aggravate asthma and make it harder for people with asthma to breathe. Moreover, carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions – another known pollutant resulting from energy production and use – may also be contributing to the growing rates of asthma. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and some researchers, increased levels of CO2 in our environment are increasing ozone and pollen production (an allergen), which in turn are increasing allergic reactions and aggravating asthma. New studies also suggest that traffic-related pollution exposure at school and homes may both contribute to the development of asthma.
Asthma affects people of all ages, races and socio-economic classes, but it disproportionately affects minorities as well as children and families with lower incomes due, in part, to their close proximity to asthma-triggering pollutants from coal-fired power plants, highways, construction sites, and other sources of dirty emissions. According to the report, Air of Injustice, 68% of African Americans live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant. These communities are also two to three times more likely to be exposed to fine particle pollution contributing to poorer air quality in these neighborhoods. African-American children also have a 500% higher death rate from asthma, as compared to Caucasian children. In addition to higher levels of air pollution, these communities suffer from higher health care costs due to increased hospital stays and indirect costs such as lost school and work days due to asthma attacks. The estimated economic cost of asthma amounts to more than $56 billion annually here in the United States. Cleaning up dirty air pollution from just one source – coal-fired power plants – will improve the lives of asthma sufferers and others living near these facilities while saving as much as $140 billion annually.
For more than 40 years, the Clean Air Act (CAA) has played an important role in reducing health impacts from polluting emissions. Today, the EPA is considering new regulations to reduce the health impacts from unseen pollutants: the first-ever national standards to limit greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from new coal-fired power plants. These plants are the single largest emitter of CO2 pollution in the United States, dumping more than two billion tons of CO2 into the air every year. Reducing emissions from these behemoths will not only significantly help mitigate climate change, but can also protect public health by reducing pollutants that aggravate asthma and other respiratory diseases.
As air quality continues to threaten public health for all Americans, our leaders in Congress need to stand up and implement clean energy and air protection policies now. Across the country, many organizations, like SACE, are playing an important role in the fight against asthma and other illnesses impacted by air pollution. We will continue to lead those efforts in the Southeast. Please join us in the fight and let your Senators and Representatives know that these policies will protect the air we all breathe and create a healthier, happier future for everyone.