Public Health and the Carbon Pollution Rule

June 11, 2014Charlie Arnowitz

By now, you’ve probably heard about the Environmental Protection Agency’s new rule regulating emissions from coal-fired power plants. Of course, in the long-term this key regulation will have a significant impact on mitigating climate change. But in the shorter-term, it will also affect another critically important issue: human health.

Emissions from coal power plants adversely affect human health in two key ways. First, the effects of a warming planet bring “more smog, more asthma, and longer allergy seasons,”according to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy. Since the power plants in question contribute so mightily to climate change, the new regulations will likely help to mitigate those effects on human health.

Second, carbon emissions also contain a variety of other pollutants that are hazardous to human health. McCarthy went on, “Carbon pollution from power plants comes packaged with other dangerous pollutants like particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, and sulfur dioxide, putting our families at even more risk.”

In rolling out the regulation, the Obama administration emphasized these effects on public health. On the day the regulations were released, President Obama reached out to health groups like the American Lung Association. Other healthcare groups applauded the effort. For instance, the American Academy of Pediatrics stated that “The regulation released today by the Environmental Protection Agency is a welcome and needed step to help make the air we breathe safer and cleaner for children.” More specifically, the group predicted that by 2030 the proposal “will result in 6,600 fewer premature deaths, 150,000 fewer asthma attacks in children and 37,000 fewer cases of children with bronchitis.”

The Reform Movement and environmental advocates applauded the new regulations because we firmly believe in the importance of protecting our planet. But the impact of these regulations on public health should not be overlooked. No matter our disagreements about how best to provide healthcare for all members of society, a crucial and sacred obligation, any healthcare program is less effective in the face of a more polluted and warmer planet. Protecting public health should be a first-order moral concern, and safeguarding the environment in which we live—the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat—is critical to doing so.

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