Dying for a Breath of Fresh Air
Elbert Jovante Woods, the son of the former Cincinnati Bengals fullback Ickey Woods, died this Saturday. He was only 16. A cornerback high school football player, he’d been practicing with his varsity team on Wednesday and later collapsed at home. He was rushed to hospital with a severe asthma attack, and put on life-support, but never recovered. His doctors blamed extreme heat and poor air quality for the teen’s death. ‘We've actually had a lot of patients in the last week come in with exacerbation of asthma,’ said Dr. David Bernstein, a University of Cincinnati researcher. ‘We think it's probably related to air quality.’
All of us at C&L extend our heartfelt sympathy to Woods’ family, the loss of a talented, vibrant child a tragedy for anyone. (And aside from anything else, I’d like to note that Jovante was an organ donor, his gift of life is now helping eight other people – the kid was a star, in every sense of the word.)
Like Jovante, I and several other members of the C&L staff, have suffered from life-long asthma. Unlike Jovante, however, I’m lucky enough to live in a part of the world where the air quality is so relatively clean that lichen – which are incredibly sensitive to air pollution – grows on the asphalt of roads, even in cities as big as Auckland. Jovante, on the other hand, lived in Cincinnati, one of the worst cities for air pollution, having been ranked 2nd statewide and 11th nationwide for the worst fine particle, or ‘soot,’ pollution, and ranked 5th nationwide for soot pollution. Power plants are the largest source of fine particle pollution, which is formed when sulphur dioxide and other pollutants react in the atmosphere. Fine particle pollution is high year-round in Cincinnati and has routinely exceeded EPA’s standard for what is safe to breathe over the long-term.
In 2005, the Bush administration’s science advisors and EPA staff scientists concluded that the current health standards for fine particle pollution were too weak to fully protect the public. They recommended that the Bush administration make the standards more protective, which would require power plants and other polluters to clean up. The Bush administration rejected these recommendations and instead proposed a very minor change to the health standards. It was unprecedented for an administration to disregard the recommendations of the independent Clean Air Science Advisory Committee. More than a dozen states, along with environmental groups, then sued the EPA, contending that the Bush administration ignored science and its own experts when it decided in 2006 not to lower the nearly decade-old soot standard.
I doubt much has changed in the last four years, the air Americans are breathing is still as toxic. With no disrespect whatsoever to the Woods’ family, I have to wonder how many other kids in Cincinnati have died because they're breathing highly toxic soot, but their parents weren’t famous enough for the media to have noticed?
Asthma isn’t just some annoying mild childhood complaint – it’s a killer. African Americans are three times more likely to die from asthma than Whites. Hispanics may have an elevated risk of asthma as an estimated 80 percent of Hispanics live in areas failing to meet one or more U.S. EPA air quality standard, compared to 65 percent African Americans and 57 percent of Whites. Every day, 40,000 people miss school or work because of asthma. 5,000 are severe enough to visit an ER, and 1,000 of those are admitted to hospital. 11 people die from asthma. Every day.
Well, Bush is gone and we’ve got a president in office who cares about the environment, right? Well, let’s see… he’s called for government workers to cut back on their driving. Government workers who commute or travel less to work will reduce greenhouse emissions 13% by 2020, eliminating 101 metric tons of carbon dioxide. I guess that’s something, even if we have to wait ten years to see any results. Oh, and he’s cancelling some of Brazil’s debt in exchange for forest protection. Well, I guess that’s nice and all, very touchy-feely. But beyond the bikes and tree-hugging, what is being done as far as clamping down on polluters in the first place, those who create the most dirty air?
To be fair, the EPA has proposed air pollution regulation aimed at at curbing harmful power plant pollution in 31 states, the Clean Air Interstate Rule tightening restrictions on pollution from coal-burning power plants in the eastern half of the country, cutting sulphur dioxide emissions by 71 percent from 2005 levels by 2014 and nitrogen oxide emissions by 52 percent in the same time frame. The rule would overturn and toughen rules issued during the Bush administration. That seems like a good idea. As far as it goes.
But industry groups have also pointed out it will boost power prices and force many older coal-fired power plants to close, to be replaced by… what, exactly? Jeff Holmstead, a former EPA official who authored the original interstate rule, said it was not clear whether utilities will be able meet the new standards while still providing affordable and reliable electric power. And some critics of the new bill have further noticed that it’s really not that much different to air quality regulations that were proposed in 2002 by Bush.
So let’s hope that Obama is doing more for the environment than taking his daughter swimming in Gulf waters laced with oil and toxic dispersants to convince us everything’s all better now and we can stop hating BP so much. It’s not enough to simply overturn Bush’s legacy of dirty regulations to try to get back to Square One where we started – we’re long past Square One. We need more than that. We deserve more than that. We need comprehensive, integrated legislation that not only proposes tougher laws clamping down on polluters, it will promote clean, sustainable energy (which, as an aside, would provide a whole lot of badly needed jobs as well). And we need a hell of a lot more regulation as well on controlling lobbyists for corporate interests who can throw tens of millions of dollars at Congress members fighting against such regulations. And we need it, like, real soon. Not after the next election, not in 2020. Now.
Because it’s very hard to shout in protest if you’re struggling to get enough air in your lungs just to breathe.