Many attacks could be prevented by reducing pollution and making our air healthier to breathe.
By Lani Graham and Marguerite Pennoyer
Portland Press Herald op-ed
ABOUT THE AUTHORS Lani Graham, M.D., MPH, is a board member of Physicians for Social Responsibility in Maine, co-chair of the Maine Medical Association’s Public Health Committee and former state chief public health officer. Marguerite Pennoyer, M.D., is a Scarborough physician specializing in allergy, asthma and immunology and an American Lung Association in Maine board member.
Watching a child struggle through an asthma attack is something that no parent wants to see and that no doctor can ever forget. Yet here in Maine about one in every 10 children has asthma, putting them at particular risk for coughing, wheezing and, in some cases, a full-blown asthma attack on days when the air is unhealthy.
It can culminate in a stressful and often frightening trip to the emergency room. It can also be fatal. Make no mistake: Asthma is a serious condition for people of any age.
As physicians, we see far too often the toll that asthma and other lung conditions take on Maine families. But the good news is that many asthma attacks could be prevented, simply by reducing pollution and making our air healthier to breathe.
Last summer, health professionals across Maine celebrated the introduction of the federal Clean Power Plan, which sets first-ever limits on carbon pollution from power plants. We are now left frustrated at last month’s decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to put the Clean Power Plan on hold while legal challenges from industrial polluters are reviewed.
Every day the Clean Power Plan is delayed is another day that carbon pollution disrupts our climate and intensifies the conditions that can lead to asthma attacks, including increased ozone pollution, longer pollen seasons and more forest fires.
The Supreme Court ruling is particularly dangerous for Maine, where we not only have one of the highest asthma rates in the nation, but we are located at the end of the nation’s tailpipe. We receive much of our unhealthy air from states to the south and west of us.
Unhealthy air affects everyone. Kids miss opportunities to learn when they miss school; businesses lose productivity when workers are out sick; and families feel the impact on their wallets when they need emergency department visits, prescription drugs and even hospital admissions.
For far too long the residents of downwind states like Maine have been paying the price – with our health and in lost economic productivity – for cheap power produced elsewhere. The Clean Power Plan finally levels the playing field with standards that are fair and achievable for every state in the nation.
The Clean Power Plan’s original and very reasonable deadlines would have prevented up to 3,600 premature deaths, 90,000 asthma attacks and 300,000 missed days of school and work across the nation in the year 2030. Delaying its implementation is a substantial missed opportunity.
Here in Maine, we are already on track to achieve the emission standards set out in the Clean Power Plan, simply by continuing to participate in the nine-state Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, or RGGI. Because the Clean Power Plan offers nothing but positive results for Maine people, it’s critically important that policymakers continue our active participation in RGGI, and that we do everything we can to compel other states to move forward in placing common-sense limits on carbon pollution.
U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has called climate change a “serious, immediate, and global threat to human health.” And the internationally renowned medical journal Lancet reports that steps to reduce carbon pollution can benefit health as soon as they are put in place.
Because power plants are the nation’s largest source of carbon pollution, reducing their carbon emissions is the single best thing we can do – the lowest-hanging fruit – in our efforts to lessen the health impacts of climate change, especially for children, seniors and people with heart and lung conditions.
We must not let legal maneuvering and delay tactics (many perfected over the years by the tobacco industry) replace sound science and common sense. We must come together as a nation and dedicate ourselves to significant and immediate action on climate change.
Doctors know the stress a family faces when a child has an asthma attack. We’ve seen the fear and anguish on a parent’s face; we’ve watched small children struggle to get their next breath; we’ve listened to too many stories of missed math tests, soccer games and field trips; and we’ve heard mothers and fathers discuss how to cope with the costs of medicines, doctors’ visits and calling in sick to work.
Maine people deserve healthy air; Maine businesses deserve a level playing field for energy prices; and all Americans deserve a focused commitment from policymakers to rein in climate change and its devastating health and economic impacts.