January 14, 2011
I spent the year-end holidays in a surprising way: helping friends set up a nursery. They are expecting a baby in March, but when troubling signs of a premature delivery threatened, the mother was rushed into the hospital and put on bed rest. She's one of the busiest, most active people I know, so the next few months (touch wood) aren't going to be easy for her. But she will do whatever it takes to protect her infant.
At the hospital, my friend is learning more about the development of her child's brain; she's being urged to take vitamins and supplements to enhance its growth. Naturally, she hasn't been worrying about the air she breathes. Most of us don't. But while I was online searching for cribs, on a brilliantly sunny morning after a blizzard — and checking the weather ahead — I stumbled on a surprising news release from the Environmental Protection Agency: the air quality in much of New England at year end was poor, due to elevated levels of fine particle pollution. The agency recommended that people limit strenuous outdoor activity.
Somehow, I thought this kind of warning was a thing of the past. I was wrong. We take for granted that we are breathing clean air — and it is cleaner than it was 40 years ago, before the Clean Air Act became law. There's an entire new generation of parents that don't have any memory of a time when air and water pollution was so severe that an oil-soaked river could actually catch fire, as happened in Ohio in 1969.
So why should mothers in this country worry about air quality now? Haven't we got enough on our minds? The fact is that many families are living near smokestacks that spew toxic brews. With coal-burning power plants and cement plants spewing out mercury and other toxic emissions, more than 150 million Americans still breathe air that fails to meet national air quality standards.
A harrowing account of the effects of air pollution on a community can be found in a series that ran last month in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. As one mother put it: "My kids would build a snowman and it would turn black overnight. We don't smoke, but living here is like we're smoking." Other quotes from Pennsylvania residents describe cancer patterns, ill children, and utter frustration at getting laws enforced; they are heartbreaking.
In 2009, USA Today ran a prize-winning investigation into air quality around schools, and found that in thousands of them, the modeled concentrations of air pollutants were at least twice as toxic as those found in nearby neighborhoods — and in some cases, ten times more so.
Let's be clear about this: Air pollution isn't just dirty. It is poisonous. Particulate pollution, which we inhale, is a complex mixture of things like nitrates, sulfates, organic chemicals, metals, soils and dust particles. Air pollution affects fetal organ development. It is linked to stunted lung growth, irregular heartbeat and a higher risk of low birth weight.
Coal-fired plants are the largest source of mercury emissions; mercury from smokestacks is a potent neurotoxin that harms brain development not only in fetuses, but in growing children. Coal plants are also the biggest emitters of the greenhouse gases that cause global warming.
Instead of facing up to their legally-mandated responsibilities to clean the air, big polluters have a new pipe dream: they and their trade associations, lobbyists and assorted front groups are behind efforts in Congress to handcuff Environmental Protection Agency, which enforces clean air laws. It may be hard to believe that anyone, or any company, is pro-pollution, but that's what it amounts to.
The smokescreen for their arguments? That regulating pollution harms the economy. The president of the American Petroleum Institute, Jack Gerard, recently made the outrageous claim that EPA was "restructur[ing] the American economy."
That simply isn't true. As air pollution has dropped, our Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has risen by 207% since 1970 when the Clean Air Act was passed. Clean air has been good for our economy. It has spurred innovation, created new jobs and markets, improved productivity — and cut health care costs. There is simply no justification for pollution. It is an inhumane practice.
Clean air has been a bipartisan issue for 40 years; this should make us proud. The 1970 law was signed by Richard Nixon, and the 1990 Amendments, passed by a Democratic-majority Congress, were signed by President George H.W. Bush. Unfortunately, his legacy was undercut by the second President Bush, and now, Texas Governor Rick Perry is among those leading the charge against EPA.
Because Texas is home to so many coal plants, Texans today breathe some of the dirtiest air in the nation. Texas has some of the highest ozone concentrations in the country, is number one in emissions of the most serious pollutants; in many areas the pollution levels exceed toxicity in the state’s own guidelines. Their state regulators have been lax, allowing polluters to skirt regulations with a special permit system. A real sign of the times: EDF's Elena Craft's post on a phone app lets Texans know about the day's air quality, so they can decide whether to go running, or let the children play outdoors.
It will be a national scandal if we let polluters sabotage the Clean Air Act. As I sat in the hospital room with my friend, a nurse moved an ultrasound wand over her belly. We heard the swoosh of blood throb through an infants' heart, and tears came to our eyes. It is not too often that political issues are a matter of life and death, but this one is.
Take action to ensure our protections against mercury pollution.
What You Can Do
EDF has started a campaign to fight attempts to weaken EPA, but our representatives in Congress need to hear our voices as well.
Make your voice heard today.
Urge your members of Congress to oppose the "Mercury Pollution is Good for You" bill, which would block EPA standards limiting mercury pollution emitted into the air from cement plants.
No one has a right to make it harder for our children to catch a breath of fresh, clean air.