Saving the Clean Air Act will save lives

Posted Nov. 25, 2010, at 11:48 p.m.
This artwork by Michael Osbun relates to growing environmental awareness among American businesses.
Michael Osbun
This artwork by Michael Osbun relates to growing environmental awareness among American businesses.

Keeping Maine’s residents healthy is one of the most important jobs in this state, and for the past 40 years, the Clean Air Act has made this job easier by substantially reducing harmful air pollution. There’s more work to be done, but unfortunately, the law is under attack, and the Senate may well vote during the current “lame-duck” session on a proposal that threatens to move us backward in the effort to protect our health and the health of the environment.

Protecting the Clean Air Act, this country’s premier pollution-control law, should be a no-brainer. Since December 1970, the Clean Air Act has successfully and cost-effectively removed millions of tons of pollution from the air and saved hundreds of thousands of lives. The law has improved air quality in cities across the country, protected the ozone layer, phased lead out of gasoline and greatly reduced acid rain, among many other accomplishments. To take just one example, lead levels in the ambient air have dropped by 91 percent since 1980, greatly reducing the number of children with IQs below 70 as a result of lead exposure.

Making progress on each of these environmental issues has resulted in real health benefits in Maine and across the country because exposure to air pollutants leads to many health problems, particularly in the respiratory and cardiovascular systems.

How much of an impact has the law had? A very big one. In its first 20 years alone, the Clean Air Act prevented an estimated 843,000 asthma attacks, 18 million cases of respiratory illness among children, 672,000 cases of chronic bronchitis, 21,000 cases of heart disease and 200,000 premature deaths, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. That is an impressive track record.

The law continues to make a real difference. Since 1990, when President George H.W. Bush signed the 1990 Amendments to the Clean Air Act into law with overwhelming bipartisan support, emissions of six common air pollutants have declined 41 percent, while gross domestic product has grown by 64 percent.

Furthermore, government studies show that the benefits of Clean Air Act programs have outweighed their costs by as much as a 42-1 margin. Clearly, the Clean Air Act is an important investment to protect public health.

Building on a long chain of successes, it continues to protect public health in new ways. The EPA is now considering the first-ever standards for carbon pollution emitted from coal-fired power plants and other big smokestack industries. From dangerous heatwaves to the spread of infectious diseases to extreme drought, the results of uncontrolled carbon pollution pose both immediate and long-term threats to our health, not to mention our economy and way of life here in Maine.

Unfortunately, as the administration is about to take this crucial step forward, the oil industry, coal companies, electric utilities and others are fighting to block the progress by undermining the Clean Air Act. The Senate is expected to consider legislation during the current session that would block implementation of the law, despite its long history of success and the urgent need to reduce carbon pollution.

A broad coalition of organizations and citizens has come together to protect the Clean Air Act. Last Monday, five Maine health organizations, including Maine Medical Association, American Lung Association of Maine and Maine Public Health Association, along with 50 Maine health professionals, sent a letter to Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins urging them to vote against proposals that weaken the Clean Air Act.

In addition to those in the health community, the coalition includes the American Wind Energy Association, Biomass Power Association, Maine Solar Energy Association, and other clean-energy companies; the Small Business Majority, Main Street Alliance, Maine Small Business Association and other small businesses and groups; and many others, from scientists to state and local officials to labor unions. These organizations and individuals are joining together with a recognition that the only people benefiting when we delay putting limits on pollution are the polluters themselves.

As Mainers, we have a special stake in the fight. Maine’s Sen. Ed Muskie wrote the original Clean Air Act, signed into law by President Richard Nixon in 1970. Twenty years later, another Maine senator, George J. Mitchell, wrote amendments that further held polluters accountable. Now it’s time for Mainers to continue this proud legacy of making the health of Americans a priority by standing up and raising our voices to defend the Clean Air Act.

We urge Sens. Snowe and Collins to vote against any proposal that lets big polluters off the hook by weakening the Clean Air Act. The health of Mainers and all other Americans hangs in the balance.

Dr. Paul Shapero specializes in allergy and asthma in Bangor. Nathaniel Meyer is a field Associate with Environment Maine, the statewide, citizen-based environmental advocacy organization.

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