Through EPA rule, children can breathe cleaner air

With summer in full swing and many parents continuing their work in office buildings, children are spending their days outdoors. Whether it be playing tag on the playground or building sand castles on the beach, our children share a unique exposure to the air around them, and to harmful pollutants.

As a pediatrician and a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Environmental Health, I care for the children whose health and well-being is affected by the detrimental effects of air pollution, which is why I testified this week in support of the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed rule to reduce carbon pollution from existing fossil fuel-fired power plants. Carbon pollution is a leading greenhouse gas contributing to climate change in the United States. These power plants are the nation’s largest carbon pollution source, generating approximately one-third of all U.S. greenhouse gas pollution, and our children are bearing the brunt of the negative health effects generated by carbon pollution.

ADVERTISEMENT
Children are not just little adults. They breathe faster than adults, spend more time outside and have proportionately greater skin surface exposed to the environment, making them increasingly vulnerable to environmental contaminants. Their ongoing development heightens risk of infection, malnutrition, undernourishment and trauma that can cause permanent dysfunction. These factors mean that children disproportionately bear the burden of climate change’s health effects.

According to the World Health Organization, more than 80 percent of the current health burden due to changing climate occurs in children younger than five years old. These health impacts include the broad effects of weather disasters, climate sensitive infections, allergic and asthmatic diseases, food and water insecurity and heat-related deaths. As climate change accelerates, children will continue to suffer disproportionately.

Pediatricians such as myself are already seeing these impacts.  At least 10 percent of U.S. children suffer from allergic rhinitis due to pollen. With later first frost and earlier spring thaw due to climate change, the allergy season has become longer and more severe.  In my northern Virginia region, the season has extended two weeks, and it is all too common for my young patients to require 3 to 4 medications just so they can play outside.  Hotter summers also mean more ozone smog pollution. According to the American Lung Association’s 2014 report, northern Virginia ranks 9th for the worst ozone pollution in the United States.  There are more than 200,000 children with asthma in this region, many of whom have to stay home or go to offices like mine during high ozone days.  Even Virginia’s rural counties are affected, with 13 of 22 Virginia counties receiving a D or F for ozone pollution.  

The EPA’s action to reduce carbon emissions of existing fossil fuel-fired power plants is a major step forward in addressing a key component of climate change, and stemming the tide of its negative health effects. In the short term, reducing carbon pollution will positively impact child health through the co-benefit of decreasing the emission of other pollutants that also create harmful ozone. When fully implemented in 2030, the EPA’s proposal will result in up to 6,600 fewer premature deaths, 150,000 fewer asthma attacks in children, 180,000 fewer missed school days, and 3,700 fewer cases of child bronchitis.

As pediatricians and parents, we want to encourage our patients and children to play outside and participate in sports, but we also deserve the peace of mind that the air they are breathing is safe and clean. Our children should not need to give up one for the other.

Our government must push forward with actions to address the health impacts of climate change. Implementing strong standards to reduce carbon emissions from existing fossil fuel-fired power plants is an immediate next step. In order to protect and promote the lifelong health of generations to come, we must start taking responsibility today.

Ahdoot is a pediatrician in Alexandria, Virginia and a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Council on Environmental Health.