Opinion: Air pollution and climate change as Clean Air Act turns 50
This month marks the 50th anniversary of the Clean Air Act, one of the U.S.’s bedrock public health laws. It’s the perfect time to reflect on how far we have come, and to recommit to the next 50 years to ensure truly clean air for all.
As a pulmonologist, having clean, healthy air to breathe is especially important to me. I have had the unfortunate experience of watching a patient die earlier than he otherwise would have due to poor air quality. We can and must do better.
For decades, this landmark law has steadily reduced air pollution in the air we breathe. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimated that the law would prevent 230,000 early deaths this year. From 1990 to 2020, the direct benefits were estimated to reach nearly $2 trillion in savings associated with public health benefits from cleaning up pollution.
Yet despite the significant progress made, nearly half of Americans are still breathing unhealthy air. This is unacceptable, especially for the 225,000 children, 171,000 older adults, and more than 150,000 people with lung disease in Montana who are especially at risk of health harms from air pollution.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made focusing on lung health and clean air even more important, as emerging evidence shows that long-term exposure to air pollution is related to an 11% increase in the COVID-19 death rate.
Furthermore, climate change is posing unprecedented challenges to air quality. As Montanans well know, more intense and frequent wildfires are contributing to spikes in particle pollution. In neighboring states, rising temperatures are increasing ground-level ozone pollution levels.
Now, the nation has a chance to address climate change and secure clean air for all communities under a new Congress and administration. We need immediate action to protect health at all levels of government, including the Biden Administration and Congress.
The good news is that the Clean Air Act provides strong tools for the new administration to reduce greenhouse gases and air pollution. It requires the federal government to place limits on harmful air pollution, including the greenhouse gases that cause climate change. That’s why it’s so important that the nation’s leaders commit to protecting, implementing and enforcing the Clean Air Act for the next 50 years.
One pitfall the nation must avoid is weakening this landmark law. Right now, some representatives of polluting industries are promoting climate legislation that would weaken the Clean Air Act by stripping EPA’s authority to address climate change. There is no reason why Congress should block or weaken the Clean Air Act, and a bill with this trade-off could do much more harm than good when it comes to cleaning up pollution.
I am grateful that President-elect Joe Biden has already promised to take strong action on air pollution and climate change. I urge his administration and Congress to commit to climate solutions that keep the Clean Air Act fully intact, and provide equitable solutions for all Americans. Everyone deserves to be able to breathe safe, clean air.
Robert K. Merchant, M.D., is a Montana pulmonologist with a practice in Billings, and served on the board of directors of the American Lung Association from 2012-2019.