I was called to the practice of medicine at a very young age because I wanted to be able to help people be and stay healthy. Not long after completing my training, however, I realized that no matter how well I take care of my patients and they take care of themselves, none of us can be healthy if the environment is not healthy.
Air pollution kills. We’ve actually known this for centuries. And we are lucky to have excellent national laws that make it possible for policymakers to regulate the pollutants that endanger our health. Modern medical science has established that even low levels of pollutants caused by burning fossil fuels in power plants kill thousands of Americans each year and sicken many more. Smog and soot aggravate diseases like asthma, emphysema and heart problems, precipitating asthma attacks, heart attacks, heart failure and increasing death from all causes.
Power plant pollution is often a silent killer – especially here in North Carolina where our air quality is compromised by burning fossil fuels in our power plants. Even pollution below the level that is visible can be deadly, especially to vulnerable groups like infants, children, the elderly and people with chronic medical conditions.
The news about this is not all bleak, though. In fact, some of it is promising. Take a recent report by researchers at Harvard, Boston and Syracuse universities. It found that, each year, we can save the lives of about 130 North Carolinians by cutting greenhouse gas pollution from power plants, much as the federal Environmental Protection Agency proposed this summer, using the authority of the Clean Air Act that is already the law of the land. We can also reduce the number of heart attacks, asthma attacks and other air pollution-related illnesses in our state.
This is how that would work. Particulate matter and the precursors of ground-level ozone pour out of power plant smokestacks along with carbon dioxide, the leading greenhouse gas. When you cut the carbon dioxide pollution, you cut the other pollution, too. The Harvard/BU/Syracuse study found that North Carolina is among the states with the most lives to save by regulating CO2 from power plants. That fact alone should compel us to support such standards. The country’s largest doctors’ group, the American Medical Association, supports the EPA plan. As a doctor, member of Medical Advocates for Health Air, a parent and a person of faith, I support the EPA’s proposed carbon rules as well.
Here in North Carolina, we’ve already had great success saving lives by limiting power plant pollution. Our forward-looking Clean Smokestacks Act of 2002 has cut sulfur dioxide (a component of particulate matter and soot) and nitrogen oxide (a precursor of ground-level ozone) from power plants by 89 percent and 83 percent respectively. That, in turn, saved an estimated 1,700 North Carolina lives in 2012 alone. Estimates of the economic benefits – that’s right, economic benefits come from environmental protection – range from $500 million to $16 billion a year.
While air quality sometimes seems beyond our control, there’s much we can do to improve it and save the lives and improve the health of our family members, friends and neighbors. We can let our political leaders know we support government standards that reduce greenhouse gas pollution from power plants. We can champion clean energy sources, such as solar and wind power, and the cheapest “fuel” source of all, energy efficiency. We can protect and build on the North Carolina renewable energy and energy efficiency standards that are driving the incredible growth of clean energy in our state, and the job growth that goes along with it.
It turns out that having a healthy environment and improved health isn’t beyond our control at all. If we act, we can help protect the world that sustains us and our own health along with it.
Katherine M Shea, M.D., MPH, lives in Chapel Hill.