By Sean Palfrey, MD
Every time 8-year-old Mia leaves the house to play outside with friends, her mother, Rachael, worries that her daughter might suffer a serious asthma attack. Although she knows it would be unfair and unhealthy to keep Mia trapped inside every day after school or prevent her from participating in sleepovers and school field trips, it is sometimes hard for Rachael to let go of the memory of Mia’s early years.
Mia, like an ever-increasing number of Massachusetts children, has had to endure more than her fair share of severe asthma attacks. During one attack, she coughed so hard that she burst blood vessels in her eyes. Although these attacks are somewhat less frequent now, countless visits to the emergency room hardened her family to the harsh realities of raising a child with asthma, which can be deadly at worst and terrifying at best.
Because air pollution can be a recipe for disaster for Mia, Rachael continues to be vigilant about checking air quality forecasts and has often changed her family’s plans if an unhealthy air quality day is on the horizon. On days when the air quality is going to enter the code orange or red zones, Rachael knows it’s safer to keep Mia indoors than to risk her having an acute asthma attack.
One in ten people in the Bay State suffer with asthma, which is higher than the national average. We are seeing and treating an increasing number of children like Mia whose lives could be so much safer, happier and more successful if only we could only write a prescription for healthy air.
While those of us in the medical community do not have the power to write such a prescription, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does. Much to its credit, the EPA has finally taken necessary steps to clean up the most prolific stationary source of air pollution in this country—coal-fired power plants. No other industry produces more carbon pollution, and as temperature trends continue to rise, the dangers of carbon pollution increase exponentially because of this simple equation: heat plus carbon pollution equals smog.
Nearly a third of our state’s residents live in failing or near-failing air quality zones, according to the American Lung Association’s 2013 State of the Air report. Massachusetts is not only threatened by pollution from its own coal-fired power plants but from other downwind sources that grant us the loathsome distinction of being know as America’s “tailpipe”. It’s no wonder Rachael has struggled at times to keep Mia’s asthma attacks at bay. No matter how aggressive Massachusetts healthy air laws are, our children and adults will continue to suffer until a national solution is established.
The EPA’s current proposal applies to all new coal-fired power plants, but should also stimulate technological advances that could one day dramatically reduce pollution from our nation’s expansive fleet of power plants. As a country that prides itself on ambitious innovation, we certainly have the ability to make clean energy and healthy air a reality for our children’s and for all future generations, if and when we have the will.
The truth is, we can’t afford not to. Pollution from coal-fired power plants alone costs hard working people, including the Murphy family, tens of millions of dollars every year in health care expenses from hospital bills to costly co-pays. Taxpayers also shoulder the burden of these increases health care costs.
The bottom line is that air pollution kills and makes healthy living difficult for many. Dirty air not only triggers childhood asthma attacks, but is also known to cause the cancers, strokes and heart attacks that take from us those closest to us and most vulnerable—older adults and people with chronic lung and heart disease.
Shouldn’t we be asking the EPA when our country will finally begin to clear the air?
Dr. Palfrey is a Clinical Professor of Pediatrics and Public Health at the Boston University School of Medicine and a volunteer for the American Lung Association in Massachusetts’ Healthy Air Campaign