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Commentary: Reduce pollution for our climate and our health

The Daily Herald - 2/16/2020

By Jonathan Witte / For The Herald

Deena was 14 years old and had lived her entire life in south Seattle near the freeway. She had asthma and grew up thinking that all children must have asthma since all of her friends had it too.

It wasn't until she entered high school that she discovered this wasn't true. She met new friends who lived outside her immediate neighborhood. Many of them didn't have asthma. She wondered why and decided to conduct her own research project to find out.

She began by interviewing families in her own neighborhood. Then she interviewed families living progressively farther away. What she found was that the greater the distance children lived from the freeway the less likely they where to have asthma. This data matched almost perfectly with what epidemiological health studies have concluded: The closer you live to a major source of air pollution the more likely you are to have asthma; and many other major health problems.

Dr. Jonathan Cohen, a pediatric pulmonary specialist from Seattle Children's Hospital, told this young woman's story at a recent medical conference at Virginia Mason Hospital, which focused on the health impacts caused by climate change. To protect her privacy, I've not used her real name, but her story is all too real.

The American Lung Association recently ranked air pollution in the Seattle-Tacoma metropolitan region as being the ninth worst in the nation. In cities, air pollution tends to be concentrated near major transportation thoroughfares and is primarily caused by burning fossil fuels (gasoline, diesel) for transportation. Statewide, 40 percent of all green house gas (GHG) emissions come from transportation; in Snohomish County it is even more striking, approaching 50 percent.

Thanks to an abundance of clean hydroelectric power in Washington state, GHG emissions in here tend to be less than in some other states; still, the emissions that we do produce are detrimental to our health. Exhaust from internal combustion engines contains toxic chemicals; especially harmful is small particulate matter (PM2.5), 1/20th the size of a human hair, which when inhaled travels deep inside the lungs. These, along with other toxic compounds have a profound negative impact on human health.

• It is estimated that in our state, air pollution produced by burning fossil fuels for transportation causes more than 1,000 premature deaths from heart attacks each year.

• Thousands of cases of asthma flares and other respiratory diseases are diagnosed and treated each year, either caused by or made worse by air pollution, including increasing the risk of developing lung cancer.

• Air pollution has been associated with the development of Type 2 diabetes.

• Air pollution has been linked to certain neurological diseases, including dementia.

In addition to the physical and emotional toll caused by these illnesses, there is a striking financial cost. It is estimated that this year in Washington state we will pay an extra $1.3 billion in increased health care costs because of greenhouse gases and climate change.

Worse, the physical and economic burdens are not shared equally. Studies show that there is socio-economic inequity when it comes to the health impacts of air pollution. Low-income communities and communities of color tend to be located close to major sources of air pollution. This results in a disproportionately high incidence of adverse health impacts in these communities.

What can we do to address these problems?

• We can begin by supporting, passing, and enacting clean fuel standards legislation, which has been proposed at the regional and state levels. This will monetarily incentivize the use of less polluting fuels for transportation and result in cleaner and less toxic air in our cities and near our roadways. We can urge local and regional government and agencies to improve and develop cleaner and more convenient public transportation.

• We can lobby local government to create more green spaces within our communities, make them more walkable, and improve and expand bicycle lanes. These actions would provide the co-benefits of emitting less carbon and other pollutants into the atmosphere and the air we breath, while providing the additional health benefits resulting from active (walking and bicycling), as opposed to passive (motor vehicles), transportation.

The Everett City Council has adopted a resolution declaring a climate crisis, followed by implementing a Climate Action Plan, which will take a multi-pronged approach to addressing a variety of climate-related issues. Working on these issues at the local level will have a direct impact on the economic consequences of climate change, as outlined in a recent editorial in the The Herald.

In addition, by adopting these and other measures our local and regional air quality should improve significantly, which will save lives, improve health and reduce health care costs.

Let's ensure that the next generation of children, no matter where they live, will grow up believing that suffering with asthma is the exception rather than the rule.

Dr. Jonathan Witte is a member of Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility and of 350 Everett, the local chapter of 350.0rg, a national advocacy group fighting climate change. Witte who lives in Everett, worked as a rheumatologist at The Everett Clinic from 1982 until his retirement in 2016.