DEQ plan to exempt polluters from permits is a public health emergency for NC

Do communities have a right to know about industrial polluters in their midst? In North Carolina, the answer may be not anymore.

In a sharp departure from longstanding practices, the Department of Environmental Quality proposes to exempt 1,200 facilities – almost three-quarters of the polluters in the state – from air permitting, monitoring and reporting requirements.

As doctors who specialize in pediatrics and sports medicine, we are very troubled.

The industrial polluters that would fall under the radar collectively emit thousands of tons of pollution each year. This includes toxic pollutants like arsenic and mercury, and pervasive pollutants like ozone-forming nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds. Many of these pollutants are dangerous to people’s health even in very small doses.

Breathing these emissions can cause serious, lasting and even fatal health consequences. Many of these pollutants cause or worsen respiratory conditions like asthma, which is epidemic in North Carolina. Others can lead to illnesses such as heart disease, cancer and neurological disorders. When inhaled by pregnant women, certain toxics can put the fetus at risk during critical windows of organ development. There is mounting evidence implicating early life exposure to toxics in a host of chronic diseases later in life.

The seriousness of the health consequences due to air pollution presents a strong argument for maintaining a robust database of the current and future emissions from these 1,200 facilities. These pollutants are especially harmful to vulnerable members of the population, including children, the elderly, those with chronic illnesses, people living in poverty and even people who exercise outdoors. Research on young athletes indicates that in some high air pollution areas, exercising outdoors may actually worsen lung function in this group compared with more sedentary children who do not exercise outdoors. Our studies of high school track athletes on high pollution days in the Greensboro area, for example, show a disturbingly high rate of asthmatic responses in lung function.

In our respective practices, we provide care to athletes, children and others who suffer from health problems caused or exacerbated by air pollution. These patients should be able to count on the state to make sure that the air they breathe is clean and will help make them healthier rather than sicker. And they deserve to know how much pollution sources are emitting where they live, work, go to school and recreate.

But the Department of Environmental Quality’s proposal would effectively eliminate the public’s ability to monitor emissions of these polluters in their community. The department asks the public to simply trust that it will somehow mitigate this loss of transparency through increased site visits, but there’s no requirement for the agency to do so. And it’s difficult to imagine how the agency will be able to keep better tabs on polluters by halting the flow of information from these facilities.

The department’s proposed exemptions threaten to unravel the advances in air quality that we’ve gained through policy choices and hard-fought efforts.

For the sake of our patients and people across the state, let’s keep an eye on polluters so that we can keep North Carolina breathable. The permits are a public health necessity, and we urge DEQ to retain them.

Karl B. Fields, M.D., is director of Sports Medicine Fellowship for the Cone Health System. Deborah Leiner, M.D., is a pediatrician.