Labored breathing as NC lawmakers seek to relax air pollution rules

As we sat in the audience of the NC BREATHE Conference in Raleigh a few weeks ago, we sensed a certain amount of schizophrenia between the science and policy of air pollution in North Carolina.

On the one hand, we were surrounded by physicians and scientists who relayed data about the link between air pollution and common human ailments such as asthma, emphysema and pneumonia and who talked about the state-led, bipartisan innovation – the NC Clean Smokestacks Act – that connected science and policy and resulted in reduced emissions, cleaner air and better public, environmental and economic health. On the other, despite an explicit attempt to invite them to join us, across the street sat state lawmakers, many of whom were intent on relaxing air pollution standards and reducing the requirement of tailpipe emissions testing for N.C. cars.

The link between air pollution and human health goes back more than half-a-century – to early observational studies in London. Fine particulate matter and ozone are linked to increased cardiovascular disease and stroke. More recently, short periods when automobiles and industrial activities were curtailed during the Olympics in Atlanta (1996) and Beijing (2008) were accompanied by marked reductions in the hospital admissions for respiratory and cardiovascular disease. And as shown by Drs. Julia Kravchenko and Kim Lyerly of the Duke University Medical Center, reductions in air pollution that followed the Clean Smokestacks Act in North Carolina have resulted in significantly fewer deaths from respiratory illness. Dirty air counts, and the count is a body count.

Yet, a large number of state legislators insist that clean air comes only at an unacceptable economic cost to the state – air pollution standards must be rolled back to allow cheap electricity, attract industry and increase employment in North Carolina. These are all laudable goals, but the dichotomy is a false one. Professor Drew Shindell of the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke has demonstrated that air pollutants have a significant cost to society that is not normally borne by those emitting toxics to the environment. When air pollution standards are strict and enforced, North Carolina has shown and will show significant benefits – not only for health and the environment, but also for the economy.

Air pollution is not just an urban problem. East of the Interstate 95 corridor, a major source of particulates in North Carolina’s air stems from agriculture. Fine particles form in the atmosphere from emissions of ammonia from fertilized agricultural fields and hog farms. These are difficult to regulate, but we must not simply ignore them by assuming that agriculture is a “green” activity.

Our legislators should also embrace national air pollution standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency, aimed to control carbon emissions from fossil-fuel power plants and pollution that enters the state from upwind regions, even from overseas. Control of nitric oxide at the local, state and national level results in lower regional ozone levels, with benefits to all who breathe. The EPA will release new standards for ozone later this year; these should form a baseline for more stringent state regulations.

For air pollution, the science needs to inform policy. When it does, good things happen in every realm: people get healthier, the environment gets healthier and so does the economy. Policymakers cannot claim that the science is too difficult or that they have no experience in chemistry. The link between dirty air and bad health is clear and simple, and it affects everyone. You can’t move away from air pollution.

William H. Schlesinger is dean (emeritus) of the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University. June Blotnick is executive director of Clean Air Carolina, a co-sponsor of the NC BREATHE Conference.