Unbelievably, politicians play politics with public health

Guest Blog | May 22, 2013 | Climate Change, Energy Policy

This piece, written by Dr. Olson Huff, originally ran in the Raleigh News & Observer on May 18, 2013.

As a doctor, I regularly witness how harmful pollution created by burning coal and other fossil fuels affects public health. As a pediatrician, I have spent decades caring for children whose health is most compromised when these dangerous pollutants are released into our air and water.

While air quality has improved in the 40 years since Congress passed the Clean Air Act, the American Lung Association tells us that 40 percent of Americans still live in communities with unsafe levels of pollution. So I find it hard to understand why elected officials in Raleigh and Washington can knowingly threaten decades of gains to secure cleaner air by playing politics with public health.

Human-produced particulates shouldn’t be in our air – those tiny, pollution-generated particles that find their way deep into the spaces of our lungs and cause great harm and much distress. The kind of particles that trigger asthma attacks and are responsible for 9 million visits to health care professionals each year. Particles just like those belched out of coal-fired power plants, spewed from gas-fueled vehicles and released into the atmosphere by industrial productions of all kinds. Carried by the winds, spread everywhere and sometimes invisible, these microscopic specks of pollution are like a modern plague, spreading misery, killing the vulnerable and stealing from all of us the life-giving fresh air we expect to enjoy. We must understand what is in the air we breathe, where it comes from and what we need do to restore that most basic of rights: taking a breath of fresh air.

With that context in mind, I wonder whether leaders at our General Assembly who want to roll back our state’s renewable energy standard don’t fully appreciate that alternative energy sources like wind and solar power can offer some relief from the onslaught of fossil-fuel-generated particulates we breathe. Do these elected officials understand that inhaling smog – formed by emissions from power plants, automobile exhaust and factories – is like giving your lungs a bad sunburn and that society bears the economic costs of such health effects?

It saddens me to know that state officials are not the only ones playing politics with public health. I read with dismay this month that federal legislators boycotted a scheduled committee meeting to confirm the new Environmental Protection Agency administrator. A difference of political opinion is no excuse for obstructionism or endangering our nation’s health.

Despite such political theater, I am heartened that the nominee, Gina McCarthy, has built her career on improving public health by crafting carbon pollution standards for new power plants; prescribing carbon limits for vehicles and updating standards to limit deadly soot, mercury and other toxic pollutants.

These recent political actions remind me that we cannot remain idle and take for granted that fresh, clean air will always surround us, or that the most irritating particulates in our air are just pollen. We deserve to know more about what is in our air, and we can demand stronger regulations in order to relieve the human misery caused by air pollution.

We can and must tell those who make our laws that this nation’s health and vitality starts with the very air we breathe. Clean air is not a partisan issue, nor strictly an environmental one. It is an issue for each and every one of us simply because our lives depend on it.

— Dr. Olson Huff practiced pediatric medicine in North Carolina for more than 40 years. He lives in Black Mountain.

Guest Blog
My Profile