Enforce the Clean Air Act

The PG series highlights how much more we must do to clean our air

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There's an old saying: If you have your health, you have everything.

The recent Post-Gazette series highlighting air pollution in southwestern Pennsylvania, "Mapping Mortality," brings this home dramatically.

The days when a near constant pall of smog hung over our skies are long gone, and we are all healthier for it. A major reason the air we breathe today is cleaner than that of our grandparents' generation is the Clean Air Act.

Enforcement of this landmark 1970 law has reduced the six most common air pollutants by more than 60 percent while our economy has grown by 209 percent, proving that economic growth and pollution reduction can take place simultaneously.

This pollution reduction has saved tens of thousands of lives and prevented millions of asthma and heart attacks, along with countless trips to the emergency room. Aside from the human suffering avoided, think of the reduction in health care costs and the increased productivity of workers not needing sick days.

Despite this undeniable track record of success, discussions continue in Congress about restricting the Environmental Protection Agency's ability to enforce the Clean Air Act.

The same argument is made today that was made 40 years ago: that cleaning our air will cost jobs, despite the more than tripling of our gross domestic product since passage of the Clean Air Act.

This law simply requires that large polluters -- not small, medium-sized or even most big businesses -- use the best available technology to reduce the dangerous pollutants they emit into the air we all breathe. Most of these pollution sources are electric power plants, which must install new technology when they upgrade or expand. New power plants and the very largest industrial pollution emitters must also follow these rules.

So, most businesses are exempt, and many power companies have already included new pollution controls in their business plans going forward. The benefits of these measures far outweigh the costs -- in economic and certainly in human terms.

Projected reductions in ozone, which makes the air feel heavy and sticky on those hot, humid summer days when young children, senior citizens and people with respiratory conditions or heart problems are advised to stay inside, would not happen if the Clean Air Act is not enforced going forward.

Cutting ozone to 60 parts per billion in the air we breathe, as recommended by the EPA's independent science advisers, would annually save up to 12,000 lives and prevent 58,000 asthma attacks and 21,000 hospital and emergency room visits. That's why health groups such as the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Lung Association, American Medical Association, American Public Health Association, American Thoracic Society, Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America and EPA's Children's Health Advisory Committee endorse this move.

Cutting emissions of dangerous pollutants from industrial boilers also would be halted if the Clean Air Act isn't enforced. Thirty-six million Americans live within three miles of an industrial boiler, which produces steam to generate electricity or heat for industries. These boilers send toxic levels of mercury, lead, arsenic, formaldehyde, benzene and dioxins into the air. The EPA says reducing this pollution would save 5,000 lives a year, with the public health benefits outweighing the costs by $14 billion annually.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, can be considered pollutants under the Clean Air Act. EPA scientists have determined these gases endanger public health but they can't be reduced if the Clean Air Act can't be enforced.

Forty years of evidence proves we can create jobs while we cut pollution, save lives, improve the quality of life and save huge sums on health care.

Please take a few minutes to urge your members of Congress and senators to support continued enforcement of the Clean Air Act. Our future, and that of our children and grandchildren, depend on it.

Dr. Deborah Gentile is director of research for the Division of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology at Allegheny General Hospital and associate professor of pediatrics at Drexel University School of Medicine ( dgentile@wpahs.org ).


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