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EPA’s New Climate Change Plan Would Help Improve Public Health

The Obama administration on Monday unveiled a set of new regulations designed to address climate change by reducing carbon dioxide emissions from the nation's power plants, saying the reductions would also bolster public health, the New York Times reports.

In his preview of the regulations during his weekly address on Saturday, President Obama said reducing the emissions would diminish harmful air pollution that spurs asthma and heart disease, which could shorten people's lives (Grady, New York Times, 6/2).

Details of Plan

The plan, which was developed by the Environmental Protection Agency, would require significant reductions in carbon dioxide emissions from both coal- and gas-fired power plants. According to the Chicago Tribune, such power plants produce pollution with microscopic particles that can get stuck in people's lungs. In order to reduce the emissions, most plants would have to limit their operation times or switch to using natural gas, which burns more cleanly and produces half the amount of carbon dioxide as coal.

If the plan is adopted after a 120-day comment period, the regulations would set the first-ever limits on emissions from coal-fired plants, which produce roughly 40% of the nation's emissions that contribute to climate change.

In addition, the plan would require states to implement their own strategies to reduce emission levels to federal standards. The federal government would set the standards based on the level of emissions currently being produced within each state's borders.

According to the Tribune, the rules would have the largest effects in the Ohio River Valley and portions of the Midwest and Northeast downwind from power plants (Hawthorne, Chicago Tribune, 6/3).

Potential Health Benefits

According to the Times, coal burning and other power plants emit carbon dioxide, soot, other particulate matter and chemicals that can affect a person's health. For instance, particulate pollution has been linked to:

  • Allergies;
  • Disrupted heart rhythm;
  • Inflamed blood vessels, which can lead to blood clots, restricted arteries and heart attacks; and
  • Respiratory issues.

In addition, the pollution can cause "desertification," which causes dust clouds to form in the air that can result in increased temperatures and a heat wave. Such high temperatures are dangerous to individuals who already are ill or frail.

Obama noted that the regulations could help prevent as many as 100,000 asthma attacks and 2,100 heart attacks during the first year following the rules' implementation. According to HHS data, more than 25 million U.S. residents have asthma, including 6.5 million children (New York Times, 6/2).

Further, the EPA estimates that the regulations would reduce early deaths by at least 6,000 and asthma attacks among children by at least 150,000 annually by 2030 (Chicago Tribune, 6/3).

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy in a speech said, "Rising temperatures bring more smog, more asthma and longer allergy seasons," noting that "one in 10 children in the U.S. suffers from asthma." She continued, "Carbon pollution from power plants comes packaged with other dangerous pollutants like particulate matter, nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide, putting our families at even more risk" (Barron-Lopez [1], The Hill, 6/2).

Health Groups Welcome Rules

Various health groups that focus on heart and lung health welcomed the rules and applauded the administration's on public health.

The American Lung Association said, "Power plant pollution makes people sick and cuts short lives," adding that reducing harmful emissions would have "an immediate, positive impact on public health."

In addition, George Thurston, a spokesperson for the American Thoracic Society, said the rules would reduce "the most toxic particles and ones associated with the most severe effects." He also noted that the effects would be "local and immediate, so the people who do the cleanup will get the benefits" (New York Times, 6/2).

American Academy of Pediatrics President James Perrin said in a statement, "As climate change accelerates, children will continue to suffer disproportionately," adding, "In fact, according to the World Health Organization, more than 80% of the current health burden due to the changing climate occurs in children younger than five-years-old" (Al-Faruque, The Hill, 6/2). He added, "The regulation released today ... is a welcome and needed step to help make the air we breathe safer and cleaner for children" (Viebeck, The Hill, 6/2).

Plan Poised for Criticism

In his remarks over the weekend, Obama urged the groups to prepare for critics who will "put out misinformation" about the regulations" effects. He said that critics will claim the regulations will hurt the job market and the economy but that such claims are "debunked" when employees and businesses work with the federal government to innovate (Barron-Lopez [2], The Hill, 6/2).

Some business interests already have promised to fight the regulations through Congress and in court. For example, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce last week warned that the rules could decrease the country's gross domestic product by $50 billion annually.

However, the EPA estimates that its proposal would reduce the U.S. GDP by between $7.3 billion and $8.8 billion annually, and result in between $55 billion and $93 billion in benefits by reducing premature deaths and respiratory diseases (Chicago Tribune, 6/3). This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.