The right to breathe: Why we need clean air for our children

Evidence is clear that unlimited carbon pollution from power plants is driving climate change and threatening the health of our nation – in the form of degraded air quality from more smoggy days, and worsening wildfires. These threats can lead to exacerbated asthma and fewer days to work or play outside safely. Children are especially susceptible to these changes in the environment and have the most at stake if nothing is done to make our air cleaner and our environment safer.

Fortunately, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has proposed the Clean Power Plan, a step in the right direction to help safeguard our children’s health from the some of the worst impacts of climate change by tackling carbon pollution. The EPA estimates that meeting the targets to cut carbon pollution would prevent up to 4,000 premature deaths and 100,000 child asthma attacks within the first year alone. Unfortunately, one of our children’s most basic needs—a safe and healthy environment—is being jeopardized by some in Congress who seek to prevent, weaken or delay these critical public health protections.

For example, current bills in both the House of Representatives and Senate, like the Ratepayer Protection Act and the ARENA Act could block the Clean Power Plan indefinitely, and allow state governors to simply opt out of complying with the plan. Residents of these states – and those in neighboring states who live downwind – would be denied the health benefits of the Clean Power Plan. These bills, along with many others that have been introduced just this year, put the interests of big polluters ahead of public health. When it comes to protecting children’s health, these bills represent a dangerous trend.
The World Health Organization estimates that children under age five bear more than 80 percent of the current health burden from the changing climate. As climate change accelerates, children will suffer the greatest health challenges. Children breathe faster than adults and they spend more time outdoors, so they face greater exposure to airborne pollution from climate change. Children’s lungs are still growing and developing, but air pollution can stunt children’s lung function, increasing their risk for lung diseases as adults. That means the pollution they inhale can have lifelong impacts on their health.

Jesse is a 12-year old boy who lives with his family near Pittsburgh, Pa. – a metro area that has spent decades cleaning up some of the highest air pollution levels in the country. Summer is a particularly difficult time of year for Jesse. Just as the weather warms up and he most wants to be outside, air pollution can make it unsafe. In fact, he needed to spend almost all of 2012 indoors. By 2013, his doctor was able to find a blend of 4 to 5 different medications he could take to allow him to play outside, but this mix of drugs produced unwanted side effects. They took him off the medications, and he returned to looking outside, watching his friends play without him. It’s truly heartbreaking for a parent watch your child go through this every year – but the alternative is too risky.

According to U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, “we know that climate change means higher temperatures overall, and it also means longer and hotter heat waves… higher temperatures can mean worse air in cities, and more smog and more ozone. We know that more intense wildfires will mean increased smoke in the air. And we know that earlier springs and longer summers mean longer allergy seasons.”

Research backs up this assertion; the third National Climate Assessment report demonstrates that air pollution will worsen in large parts of the country if we do not act to address climate change. Devastating drought already covers much of the west and the south; wildfires and their smoky trails of particle pollution reach millions of families.

Wildfires and drought have also led to more episodes of high particle pollution in recent years, and several communities especially in the West suffered their worst number of unhealthy air days yet, according to the American Lung Association’s 2015 “State of the Air” report. Warmer temperatures challenged cities across the nation to struggle to cut their ozone smog. In fact, more than four in 10 Americans – nearly 138.5 million people – live in counties where ozone or particle pollution levels make the air unhealthy to breathe.

The EPA must implement strong protections for public health under the Clean Power Plan, and we urge Congress not to interfere in the EPA’s science-driven process in finalizing these protections. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Lung Association continue to call for the strongest possible standards that protect children from the detrimental health effects of carbon pollution and climate change. We also call for the attacks on our air to stop. For children, breathing clean air is not a political statement — it is a basic right.

Wimmer is president and CEO of the American Lung Association. Hassink is president of the American Academy of Pediatrics.