Safeguarding public health requires protecting our environmental laws

A healthy environment and a thriving economy go hand in hand.

But the bipartisan environmental laws that have made America’s air and water cleaner are now under attack. The efforts to roll back the environmental safeguards that protect the health and safety of the American people should be resisted by those of us who believe it is our responsibility to make life better for the people we serve. 

Since we put in place landmark public health and environmental safeguards, mostly in the 1970s, we have seen tremendous economic growth. In 1970, America’s gross domestic product was about $4.26 trillion (in 2005 dollars). In 2009, our GDP was estimated at $12.9 trillion. Our economy has grown three-fold as we have made our air and water cleaner and our families healthier. 

Before President Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, the nation’s air was heavily polluted in many places, and many of the rivers and lakes on which we relied for drinking water, fishing and business were filled with dangerous chemicals. 

Over Thanksgiving in 1966, smog blanketed the eastern United States, and researchers concluded it killed 24 people a day from Nov. 24 to Nov. 30. In 1969, the Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught fire. Swaths of the Great Lakes were lifeless “dead zones.” And hundreds of thousands of gallons of sticky, toxic crude oil washed ashore along 35 miles of California’s coastline, killing birds and marine life and threatening fishing and recreation jobs. 

But then our predecessors acted to save lives and safeguard public health. A series of landmark public health and environmental laws were passed with strong bipartisan support. In 1970, President Nixon signed the Clean Air Act. And in 1972, the Clean Water Act became the law of our land. President Ford signed the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1974 and the Toxic Substances Control Act in 1976. President Carter signed Superfund in 1980. President George W. Bush signed the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments. President Clinton signed the Safe Drinking Water Act Amendments of 1996, and in 2002, President George W. Bush signed the nation’s Brownfields law.

Our nation has successfully improved public health protections for communities across the country by listening to the scientists, crafting legislation based on science and responsibly following these laws. 

President Obama is continuing the important work of his predecessors by enforcing our landmark environmental laws and ensuring that polluters are held accountable. The EPA is addressing serious problems, like air pollution that can trigger asthma attacks, lost days at school and work, emergency room visits, heart attacks, strokes and premature deaths. 

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), “Children are more vulnerable to the adverse effects of air pollution than are adults ... Because children spend more time outdoors than do adults, they have increased exposure to outdoor air pollution.” Our nation’s pediatricians further state that “studies have found links between air pollution and preterm birth, infant mortality, deficits in lung growth, and possibly, development of asthma.”

Under the Clean Air Act, the most vulnerable groups must be considered when setting or revising air-quality standards. Therefore, as AAP has stated, “all standards should include a margin of safety for protection of children” and “there is a compelling need to move forward on efforts to ensure clean air for all.”

Following direction from the Supreme Court, the EPA is just beginning to put limits on the amount of carbon pollution that can be released into our environment. The EPA is also moving forward with federal clean air safeguards under the Clean Air Act to reduce smog, mercury, toxic soot and carbon pollution, which will mean healthier air for our families, greater productivity and greater earning power. By ensuring all companies are playing by the same rules, the EPA is acting responsibly to protect the American people from harmful contaminants in the air. 

Some in Congress want to undermine our nation’s bedrock laws that protect public health by supporting policies that will lead to dirty air, which will result in harm to the American people and the national economy. Put simply, if you can’t breathe, you can’t work or go to school.   Those of us who care about the health and safety of the American people will fight those efforts, because we cannot afford to lose ground on the progress that has been made under the Clean Air Act. The EPA should not be prohibited from doing its job to save lives by reducing life-threatening carbon pollution.

By advancing Clean Air Act safeguards, we will encourage innovation and investment in new technologies, which will create more jobs. We must protect our landmark environmental laws for the American people — our families’ health and our economy’s strength depend on it.

Sen. Boxer is chairman of the Committee
 on Environment and Public Works.