Summer is a time for children to play outside splashing in pools, running around parks and beaches, and laughing and shouting in the “fresh air.” But, for people like 6-year-old Mia and her younger brother William, this isn’t always possible. They have asthma – a leading cause of children’s emergency room visits in Massachusetts.
Mia has had coughing fits so severe that blood vessels in her eyes have burst. She often finds herself gasping for air and terrified, coughing and wheezing uncontrollably until exhaustion or vomiting set in. Since she was 3 years old, Mia has endured scary diagnostic testing, been rushed by ambulance to the emergency room, and received treatments with potentially serious side-effects.
Mia and her brother are not alone. More than one in 10 children in Massachusetts have asthma. This is higher than the national average. Asthma is a leading cause of school absences for children in Massachusetts, and poorly controlled asthma can interfere with a child’s development and learning. Adults in Massachusetts also have a higher incidence rate than the national average.
Looming behind this family’s very real concerns are the very real consequences of our climate. One of the triggers of asthma attacks is poor air quality due to ozone pollution. In the upper atmosphere, ozone protects us from harmful sun rays, but in the lower atmosphere, “bad” ozone – or smog – forms as a result of chemical reactions that take place between pollutants emitted from power plants, factories and vehicles in the presence of sunlight and heat. Hotter temperatures can increase bad ozone levels. As our climate warms, we may see ozone pollution worsen, causing more frequent unhealthy air days that exacerbate symptoms of asthma sufferers.
In the American Lung Association’s 2012 State of the Air report, Massachusetts counties received grades no parent would want to see on a report card: six F’s, two D’s and three C’s for the high number of unhealthy air days. So far this season, as a result of high levels
of bad ozone, Massachusetts has already experienced 14 unhealthy air days. Counties such as Barnstable, Bristol, Dukes, and Essex have had the most frequent high ozone days.
Much of the air pollution in Massachusetts is blown in from out-of-state, which we call “secondhand smog.” State air regulations can, and do, accomplish a lot. But to protect the health of the commonwealth, we need nationwide clean air regulations to control the upwind power-plants in other states that substantially contribute to our poor air quality.
For that reason, our office and the American Lung Association have been fighting for national clean air standards. Massachusetts successfully led the charge up to the Supreme Court to obtain federal measures to reduce greenhouse gas pollution to address global warming. More recently, the attorney general’s office successfully argued to a federal appeals court that it should reject critics’ attacks on greenhouse gas pollution standards. These victories allowed the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) nationwide controls of global warming pollution to remain in force.
Based on what we already know about climate, we strongly support EPA’s newest effort to propose standards for greenhouse gas emissions from new coal-fired power plants. In addition, more protective national air quality standards for ozone and particulate matter, or soot, are essential, and the attorney general’s office is pursuing legal cases to achieve those goals, too.
The American Lung Association, meanwhile, has created the Massachusetts Healthy Air Campaign, an effort to protect public health by pushing for the strongest clean air protections.
Poor air quality affects all of us and has consequences far beyond health risks. Even Massachusetts families not directly affected by asthma, and our state as a whole, will benefit because healthier air in Massachusetts will save taxpayers money by reducing health care costs.
In addition to asthma and its harms to health, the costs are significant and growing. In 2010, the total charges for hospitalizations in Massachusetts due to asthma totaled $113 million — a 126 percent increase since 2000. Of those costs, taxpayers are expected to pay 66 percent. Improving air quality will save Massachusetts taxpayers money by reining in these costs.
Poor air quality in Massachusetts makes people sick and cuts lives short. Our children deserve better. We all must continue to fight for healthy air, better quality lives and to substantially reduce health care costs in Massachusetts. This will benefit all of us.
Martha Coakley is the attorney general of Massachusetts. Jeff Seyler is chief executive of the American Lung Association of the Northeast.