After a full day in and out of airplanes and airports, there’s really nothing like stepping out of the terminal and taking your first breath of unfiltered, unconditioned, unpressurized air. Sure, the curbside may be polluted with exhaust fumes and filled with the noise of honking taxi drivers, but it’s still undeniably fresh.
Too bad that, last Sunday, I took that breath in the state with the worst air pollution record in the country.
In reality, my first taste of Columbus, Ohio was probably not detectably different from in any other state. But the back of my mind was filled with a recently released joint report from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR): the Buckeye State topped their list of toxin emitters, releasing almost 70 million pounds in 2009 (the latest data that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has released). By contrast, runner-up Pennsylvania produced nearly 30 percent less. And so I found myself producing one small, involuntary cough.
The NRDC/PSR report emphasized the role of coal- and oil-fired electricity plants in the release of aerial toxins. In the United States, 49 percent of toxic air pollution – including hydrochloric acid emissions, a hearty sprinkle of heavy metals and three quarters of mercury emissions – comes from electricity generation. In Ohio, that percentage is 65. Besides mercury’s well-known mental health dangers, air pollution contributes to cancer, may produce birth defects and exacerbates a wide array of respiratory ailments.
That’s why the EPA believes that its proposed “Mercury and Air Toxics” limits will save 17,000 lives within three years of implementation in January 2012. In that same period, it predicts 120,000 cases of childhood asthma will be avoided, and insurance companies won’t have to fork out payments for 12,000 emergency room visits and 850,000 missed workdays each year.
That is, if the EPA’s proposal is carried out.
Last February, courtesy of a Republican-led House of Representatives vote, the EPA received a blow to its regulation of cement-plant pollution. (The manufacture of cement releases mercury, particulates and sulfur dioxide.) More objections and stalling tactics are sure to interfere with these new regulations, which have been more than 20 years in the making.
The EPA would also like to tighten restrictions on nitrous oxide and sulfur dioxide emissions in 28 states and the District of Columbia, where power plants’ emissions are spilling across state borders into their neighbors’ backyards. As Texas Governor Rick Perry rails against the proposed limits (announced in early July), members of Congress are drawing up bills to delay their implementation.
Now, as it attempts to establish the first nationwide regulations for mercury, chromium and acid emissions from power plants, the EPA faces additional anti-regulation, pro-industry rhetoric and more rounds of fear mongering about rising energy costs. The problem is no one spares a breath for healthcare savings (or quality of life) when ranting about the horrors extra expenditures will bring to American families in this time of economic crisis.
The nice thing about air pollution, though, is that we can cite lots of studies linking it to health issues. We can write out balance sheets, crunch numbers and show the savings produced. For example, the EPA expects its new regulations to create 40,000 jobs (admittedly, the majority of them will be temporary, as plants upgrade their hardware) and produce $140 billion annually in health and economic benefits. For every dollar spent to keep a plant within the new limits, the EPA calculates a return of $13 to the American people.
So why haven’t we jumped at the chance to clean up our act?
Well, let’s not forget that, to a large extent, we already have. Things have improved dramatically since the Clean Air Act was passed in 1963. Initial payoffs were phenomenal: people noticed jumps in lake pH and fish stocks as rainwater acidity decreased; businessmen could walk through a city without doubling up in a coughing fit; you could see the sun again where there were once clouds of smog.
Now comes the hard part: buckling down to address the less tangible, less visible effects by lowering emissions limits still further. Will our belief in scientific and medical evidence motivate us to finish the job, accepting nothing less than clean air for ourselves and our children?
I should note that California, at least, made neither the EPA’s list of 29 upwind bad guys nor the NRDC/PSR’s tally of 20 top air toxifiers. Our electricity production emits only four percent of the 7.45 million pounds of air pollution the state creates annually. Even the latter number is small, compared to the whopping 772 million pounds emitted nationally (382 million of that total comes from electricity generation; the remaining 51 percent comes from chemical manufacture (15 percent), paper products (13 percent) and a hodgepodge of other industries compelled to report emissions to the EPA.
Of course, that doesn’t mean my lungs will be happy to return home in two weeks. I may not be traipsing around in a city anymore, but the plants around Stanford’s campus find new pollens to tickle my bronchioles every month. Still, I guess there’s something refreshing about having a “natural” asthma attack.
Send inhalers, criticisms and breaths of fresh air to Holly by email at hollyvm ‘at’ stanford.edu.