Health Experts See Benefits in Push to Cut Pollution

Source: By DENISE GRADY, New York Times • Posted: Tuesday, June 3, 2014

A coal-fired power plant in Wyoming. CreditJim Urquhart/Reuters
The Obama administration contends that its new plan to cut carbon pollution from power plants will not just fight climate change, but will also quickly improve public health, preventing up to 100,000 asthma attacks and 2,100 heart attacks in the first year the rules take effect.

Public health experts said Monday that if the president could make the new rules stick, reductions in air pollution would be likely to pay off in better health.

Carbon dioxide from coal burning, a main cause of global warming, does not cause heart or lung problems itself, but the soot, chemicals and particles that accompany it can make people sick. For instance, researchers in New York City, led by Dr. George D. Thurston of the New York University School of Medicine, found that on days with high levels of ozone and air pollution, hospital admissions for respiratory problems rose about 20 percent.

When carbon dioxide emissions are reduced, so are the releases of the other substances.

Climate change can also contribute to illness by changing pollen releases in ways that worsen allergies and asthma, by causing “desertification” that pours clouds of dust into the air and by producing heat waves that endanger people who are ill or frail.

Mindful of the intense political resistance to his plan, President Obama is emphasizing its health benefits. He described them on Saturday during his weekly address, pointing out that he was at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, “visiting with some kids being treated here all the time for asthma and other breathing problems.” Those illnesses, he said, were often aggravated by air pollution.

More than 25 million Americans, including at least 6.5 million children, have asthma, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

Health groups concerned about lung and heart disease issued statements praising the new regulation.

“Power plant pollution makes people sick and cuts short lives,” the American Lung Association said, adding that cleaning up the air would have “an immediate, positive impact on public health.”

Two years ago, the lung association said it supported the phaseout of conventional coal-fired power plants. The new regulation will probably eliminate some coal plants and use the remaining ones less, but it does not phase them out. Even so, a spokesman for the lung association, Paul G. Billings, the group’s senior vice president for advocacy and education, said the group was pleased with the regulation.

“I don’t think our expectation was that this one proposal or any proposal could solve the nation’s air pollution problem or meet our policy goals with respect to the consumption of coal,” Mr. Billings said.

Dr. Byron Thomashow, a lung specialist at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital and chairman of the board of directors of the Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease Foundation, said in an email that the foundation embraced the new regulation, adding, “ With more than 300 million individuals worldwide affected by chronic obstructive pulmonary diseaseand total deaths expected to increase more than 30 percent in the next 10 years, it is critical that strong measures be taken to limit carbon emissions and the associated particulates produced that can contribute to flares of the chronic lung disease.”

The American Thoracic Society said that reducing carbon emissions would also reduce airborne hazards like mercury and ozone.

Dr. Thurston, a spokesman for the society, said that with the new regulation, “you’re reducing the most toxic particles and ones associated with the most severe effects.”

The effects on health of reducing carbon emissions, unlike those on climate, are “local and immediate, so the people who do the cleanup will get the benefits,” Dr. Thurston said. The best course for public health, he said, would be for the United States to phase out coal burning as soon as possible.