Posts in 'Air Pollution'

Air Pollution isn’t Just Dirty, it’s Poisonous!

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.

Kids would build a snowman and it would turn black overnight

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.

Personal Nature

Expectant mom

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.


A successful fight for safer school buses offers hope for global warming action

“Hope is the thing with feathers,” Emily Dickinson wrote. In her poem, hope flutters into—and out of—our hearts, it clings to its perch through the heaviest storms, and it asks for nothing in exchange, not a crumb. Hope has been very much on my mind this summer. Every single day we learn more about the deteriorating state of our planet—the dying ocean, the melting glaciers, the disruptive, unusually severe weather patterns. Then we ponder the sorry state of our political process with respect to climate change. Where’s the hope?

How neighborhood action spurred national change.

My weary friends say the battle against climate change is overwhelming. The issues are too large. The battle must be global in scale and the solution has to be as large as the problem. But it is doubtful we can institutionalize international change fast enough to avert disaster. Time is not on our side.

So we retreat to our homes, and think of tending only our gardens and raising our children. It is autumn, and for most of us, no matter how old we are, an internal rhythm kicks in: back to school! Back to serious matters! We buy the crayons and notebooks and lunch boxes for our little ones, and send them out the door to board those bright yellow buses, just as we did when we were in our brand new fall oxfords. We send our children out into that very large world—the one from which we want to retreat.

Children on the school busFresh faces on the first day of school.

About a decade ago, we began to learn that those school buses we waved our children off in posed an unexpected environmental risk. Despite being the safest way to transport children to and from school, buses produced diesel fumes that can cause respiratory ailments, exacerbating asthma, and damaging lung tissue. The problems were aggravated every time the buses stopped to open their doors to pick up more passengers; more particulate pollution streamed in and entered the children’s lungs, bloodstreams and brains. Because children’s lungs are not fully developed, they are especially vulnerable. To make matters worse, idling at pickup time at the school doors added to the pollution both inside and outside the bus.

Buses by the Numbers

When the information surfaced, it led to aggressive action across the country. New York City, Washington state, New Jersey and California instituted mandatory emissions controls programs, setting aside funds to either retire old buses quickly, or retrofit them to filter the pollution.

In states such as Texas, where EDF went to work on this issue, the programs were voluntary, but millions in funds have been made available through the legislature. EDF’s efforts, primarily in Houston, generated a great deal of local and national media attention, which helped educate other communities about the problem. EDF also created this educational video at to encourage grass roots action in other cities:

Along with the Environmental Protection Agency, the American Lung Association threw its weight behind the issue; so did many PTA organizations. Things have begun to change. Progress is slow, and sometimes frustrating. Some fleet managers are more concerned with bus routes and schedules; some legislatures are unable to find funds to buy new buses or retrofit old ones. The retrofit costs ranging from $1,000 to $8,000 are a small price to pay for our children, and the sort of thing many companies could underwrite in an “Adopt a Bus” program.

Startling difference in tailpipe emissions from buses with and without filters. Learn more

Incredibly, some people fail to give a child’s lungs and heart and brains top priority. But over and over, we have seen that things happen most rapidly and effectively when the people who do care—the parents—mobilize to demand change, and champion it through the planning and implementation stages. EPA reports that across the nation, bus retrofit programs are growing and getting better. Ten years later, district by district, across the country, our children are breathing cleaner air as they ride to school. And fortunately, even in places where nothing is done, the old, dirty buses will eventually “age out”, and be replaced with new buses designed to run more efficiently and cleanly.

Which gets us to that matter of hope. Of course there are times when hope fails us. We abandon it, or it abandons us. But the only alternative to hope is despair, and no one thrives with a heavy heart. To be human is to hope. The thing with feathers is small, but it is also nimble. Sometimes, when the big picture is overwhelming, it helps to zoom in tighter. Look at the ways in which we have made large changes for the better in our own small neighborhoods. Look at the successes we have had—and be reminded that we can change things for the better. The fight against global warming is not like the fight against school bus pollution; the crisis is too pervasive, for any individual action to make much difference. We need significant legislative change. But it is up to us, as individuals, to rally around transformative efforts—for our own sakes, and for the sake of our children.

Sometimes, hope is the thing with a backpack—that small, cherished creature, innocent and expectant, we send out into the world’s hurly-burly. I have to believe that, one way or another, we will continue to change our ways for those children—a new generation whose own hearts are filling with hope as they pick up the fight. We are like those buses. We will age out—and we will, I hope, be replaced by our children, people who have cleaner energy on their minds. In the meantime, it helps to understand that hope is a gift, a blessing, a visitation, a grace. But it is also a choice.

Personal Nature

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