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We can reduce illness and death. Our air and water in NC must be cleaner.

Duke Energy engineers and contractors survey the site of a coal ash spill at the Dan River power plant in Eden in this 2014 photo. Environmental groups say they will sue Duke for not giving the public access to maps that show areas that would flood if coal ash dams fail.
Duke Energy engineers and contractors survey the site of a coal ash spill at the Dan River power plant in Eden in this 2014 photo. Environmental groups say they will sue Duke for not giving the public access to maps that show areas that would flood if coal ash dams fail. AP

We have dramatically reduced illness and mortality from infectious disease through the miracles of modern medicine, vaccination, and public health education. Now environmental exposures provide a stark challenge for future health outcomes in North Carolina.

The Clean Smokestacks Act of 2002 which regulated gaseous emissions from power plants, has substantially improved air quality across our state, resulting in lower rates of mortality from air pollutant gases in recent years.

But citizens of North Carolina are still exposed to significant air pollution, especially from fine particles derived from ammonia emissions from agricultural operations in the eastern counties. Globally, air pollution exposure to fine particles is estimated to kill more than 3 million people each year, through increased rates of cardiovascular disease and stroke. North Carolina contributes its share.

Now, just as the state legislators in North Carolina seem destined to roll back the regulation of confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and the EPA to loosen the standards for emissions from coal ash ponds, driven by corporate pressures to foster economic growth, medical researchers find significant health impacts from these operations, as reported in the latest issue of the North Carolina Medical Journal.

Two papers from physicians in the Duke University Medical School are of particular note. Dr. Julia Kravchenko and her colleagues found higher mortality in communities, defined by zip code, that were in close proximity CAFOs in eastern North Carolina. CAFOs are known sources of a variety of air pollutants, including ammonia and hydrogen sulfide. These results are consistent with observations of higher morbidity due to fine particulate air pollution, which forms from reactions of these gases to form particles in the atmosphere.

Separately, reviewing various studies published over the past decade, Kravchenko and Dr. H. Kim Lyerly found higher rates of mortality in populations located close to coal ash ponds, which are a source of arsenic, selenium, vanadium and other metals that leach into local surface and groundwater supplies.

Through extensive chemical analysis, Drs. Jennifer Harkness and Avner Vengosh of Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment link high concentrations of these elements in surface waters to leakage from coal-ash ponds. Storage of coal ash is normally located near electric utility power plants, which are themselves a source of air pollution by toxic metals and ozone.

Upstream of Wilmington, a chemical company has discharged toxic perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, including a compound known as GenX, to the Cape Fear River for nearly 40 years. No one wakes up in the morning tasting these molecules in their water, but they are known carcinogens that can be expected to increase the rate of cancer in humans. These emissions should be halted by appropriate enforcement of the Clean Water Act and the Toxic Substances Control Act.

Health problems associated with environmental contamination are not new. Hurricane Florence provides a stark demonstration of how runoff and overflows can contaminate waterways with hog waste and coal ash leachates. The origin of most contaminations stems from corporate practices and strong lobbying to continue them.

Often the assumption is that flooding does not occur very often, but we’ve seen widespread contamination from two hurricanes within the past couple of decades. Many of the contaminations are focused in communities of color and low income, as if these social groups do not matter. Greater economic activity can benefit all citizens of North Carolina, but only if all the citizens are alive to enjoy it.

William H. Schlesinger, an emeritus professor at Duke University, was dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment from 2001-’07.
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