Healthy Environment — Steps We All Can Take

Circa 2006

Since the Clean Air Act was passed in 1970, air quality has improved in many regions of our country. However, even after 30 years of progress, more than 158 million Americans continue to breathe dirty, unhealthy air, according to a study by the Center for American Progress and the Center for Progressive Reform that examines state enforcement of clean air laws.

The Clean Air Act requires the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to protect the health of the American people and our environment from air pollution. Using the best available scientific evidence, EPA is required to set limits for pollutant levels in our air low enough and with “a margin of safety” sufficient to protect everyone, including the people most sensitive to air pollution.

The EPA’s recent standard to limit soot pollution, or particulate matter pollution, has disappointed environmental, medical and scientific communities. Since the EPA last updated its standard in 1997, more than 2,000 scientific studies have shown that exposure to even smaller amounts of soot cause serious health damage. Scientists have urged the EPA to create a standard in keeping with the scientific findings detailing the damaging health impacts of soot pollution on the respiratory and circulatory systems and the increased risks for illness and death. Exposure to elevated levels of soot results in reduced lung function and, in people afflicted with heart and lung diseases, an increased incidence of premature death.

Even short-term exposure to high levels of soot causes increased respiratory disease and cardiovascular disease, as indicated by a greater number of hospital admissions and emergency room visits. Damage to the circulatory system is evidenced by an increased incidence of non-fatal heart attacks, arrhythmias and physiological changes. Damage to the respiratory system results in increased coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath, as well as reduced lung function.

About 90 percent of the lung’s alveoli (the tiny sacs where oxygen enters the body) are formed after birth, but these structures are fragile and do not regenerate if destroyed. Thus, damage done to a child’s developing lungs by soot is irreversible, and long-term exposure to soot pollution may result in the development of chronic respiratory disease in children.

Many observers charge that the EPA has ignored its scientific advisors and carved out weak standards that give polluting industries excessive freedom at the cost of public health. EPA’s own expert report, released shortly after the new standards were announced, indicated that as many as 30,000 deaths per year could have been avoided with a stronger standard.

For example, the EPA has drawn criticism for its health standard for small particles of soot, known as PM2.5 because the material consists of particles that are 2.5 microns or smaller (thousands of these particles could fit into the period at the end of this sentence). There is a standard for a 24-hour period and an average standard for a year, both measured in terms of how many micrograms of PM 2.5 occur in a cubic meter of air.

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In announcing the new standards, the EPA maintained the annual average standard at 15 micrograms per cubic meter and slightly revised the daily average standard to 35 micrograms per cubic meter. However, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended tightening the standards much further, advocating an annual standard no more than 12 micrograms per cubic meter, and a daily standard not higher than 25 micrograms per cubic meter.

The American Lung Association also favors a more stringent standard, and many other organizations have noted that the EPA has failed to set a standard for particles larger than 2.5 microns, called coarse particulates.

While the EPA has come under fire for its revised standards, it has received praise for some voluntary programs. For instance, the Green Power Partnership gives recognition to organizations that purchase green power (electricity generated from renewable energy resources, such as solar, wind, geothermal, biogas, and low-impact hydro power) as a way to reduce the environmental impacts associated with the use of conventional fossil fuel-based electricity. Through a special initiative called the Fortune 500 Green Power Challenge, the EPA hopes to motivate Fortune 500 companies to roughly double their current level of green power purchasing. Critics, however, say standards, rather than voluntary actions, will make our environment healthier quicker.

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We can all take part in helping create a healthier environment if everyone makes a few small changes. As part of ABILITY Magazine’s continuing series on the environment, here some examples of easy ways to green your lifestyle without breaking much of a sweat.

• Ride a bicycle for local transportation.

• Use eco-friendly household cleaners. •

 Skip the clothes dryer and use a drying rack or clothes line instead. If a drying rack or clothing line doesn’t make sense for your wet laundry, a spinning clothes dryer that uses centrifugal force is a much more efficient alternative to conventional clothes dryers.

• Use rechargeable batteries.

• Choose organic fruits, veggies, meat and dairy over conventional food. They are free of pesticides, herbicides and other chemical nondesirables, better for both you and the planet.

• Grow your own food.

• Get an efficient space heater to cut down on the cubic area you heat, reducing energy consumption and energy bills.

• Recycle,and buy products made of recycled materials.

• Replace incandescent bulbs with energy-efficient light bulbs.

• Create your own bottled water—filtered tap water in a reusable bottle.

• Install low-flow showerheads—they save gallons of water each time you use them.

• Use Tupperware-like reusable food containers for leftovers and lunches; this will save tons of plastic wrappers and bags.

• Use reusable grocery bags, gift bags and coffee cups.

• Place draft-excluders at the base of your doors.

• Install a programmable thermostat to help efficiently regulate your indoor climate.

• Use a push lawn mower.

• Compost your garbage.

• Buy clothes and other linens made from organic cotton. Conventional cotton farming uses tons of chemical pesticides.

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