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Climate change is as dangerous to our health as cigarettes. That’s why I’m writing a letter

Posted Aug. 12, 2014, at 2:23 p.m.
George Danby

Who would you write a letter to tonight, if you found that extra hour in the day?

Would it be to the teacher who made such an impact on your life or your career? Would it be to your children’s soccer coach, who has helped them become stronger and more confident? Or would it be to a company that makes a product you love or the volunteer who plants tulips in the local park every year?

I’m going to write a letter to Gina McCarthy, a New England native and national expert on energy and the environment who is now the administrator of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

What McCarthy and the EPA have recently proposed has the potential to literally transform the way this country addresses the growing problem of carbon pollution and its impacts on our health, our climate and our economy. As a respiratory therapist, I can’t overstate how important this could be.

Here in Maine we’ve got at least four solid reasons to care about carbon pollution: high heat, ozone pollution, increased pollen and forest fires.

For over a century carbon pollution has been building up in the earth’s atmosphere — mostly the result of burning fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas for our factories, power and transportation. Carbon pollution naturally traps heat, so temperatures on average have been warming worldwide and our weather has become erratic.

We are now in a dangerous cycle where our changing climate is amplifying the amount of air pollution and natural allergens we are forced to breathe.

Higher heat has its own serious impacts on our heart, lungs and other vital organs, but warmer air also creates more ozone pollution, also called smog, the effects of which can be like a sunburn on the lungs.

Warming temperatures are extending the pollen season, and higher concentrations of carbon dioxide are causing greater pollen production in plants. Meanwhile, the heat and droughts associated with climate change are creating conditions more favorable to forest fires, which can generate a tremendous amount of toxic smoke.

High heat, unhealthy ozone levels, increased pollen and toxic smoke from forest fires are especially dangerous for children, whose lungs are still growing, as well as seniors and people with heart disease, asthma or other lung conditions. Health impacts can include wheezing, coughing, asthma attacks, respiratory infections, heart attacks and even premature death.

The links between carbon pollution, climate change, poor air quality, dangerous health outcomes and costly medical care are crystal clear. Dr. Mary Rice, critical care physician and senior research fellow at Harvard University writes in a research paper, “Climate change is a health threat no less consequential than cigarette smoking.” I couldn’t agree more.

We know coal-fired power plants (which we don’t have in Maine) are the nation’s single largest source of carbon pollution. Allowing them to spew unlimited amounts of carbon pollution into the air simply makes no sense. Cleaning up power plants can slow the rate of climate change, improve lung health and reduce health care costs related to poor air quality.

The EPA’s Clean Power Plan sets first-ever limits on carbon pollution from existing power plants. It gives states broad flexibility but also measurable deadlines. It’s a reasonable and responsible approach to reducing the dangerous health effects of carbon pollution and climate change.

While my letter to McCarthy will be just one of thousands, each of our voices will bring us one step closer to leaving our children and grandchildren the gift of clean, healthy air and a planet that is not careening toward a preventable catastrophe.

Let’s not forget that a single letter can change the world. Think about Houlton native Samantha Smith, who became America’s youngest ambassador to the Soviet Union at the age of 11 after writing a letter to Yuri Andropov asking what he was going to do to prevent nuclear war with the U.S.

So write that letter. And if you have time for one more, please join me in telling Gina McCarthy that we support the Clean Power Plan and its first-ever limits on carbon pollution from power plants. We owe it to our communities to act on climate.

Diane Haskell lives in Palermo and is a respiratory therapist at Pen Bay Medical Center. She is on the board of the American Lung Association in Maine.

 

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