Unhealthy levels of air pollution in many American cities are harming the health of residents, especially those who suffer from asthma. Although clear air laws that regulate industrial smokestacks, car engines and other sources of pollution have resulted in cleaner air, major sources of air pollution remain. Among the largest remaining sources of harmful pollutants are coal-fired electric power plants that were built before clean air laws were written in the early 1970s. These power plants are permitted to release thousands of tons of sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxide and mercury into the air each year, putting the health of millions of Americans at risk, particularly those who live in urban areas and particularly those who suffer from asthma.
Who Is Affected?
According to the American Lung Association, by 2020 asthma will affect 1 in 14 Americans and 1 in 5 families. Asthma is the leading serious chronic illness in children: approximately 25 percent of children between the ages of 15 and 17 have their activities limited due to asthma. Medical studies increasingly show that air pollution plays a major role in triggering asthma attacks. Exposure to air pollution has been linked to increased use of asthma medications and an increased rate of emergency room visits and hospitalizations for asthma sufferers.
More than 2 million American children with asthma, and a disproportionate number of children of color, live in areas that do not meet federal clean air standards. Approximately 61.3 percent of African American children, 69.2 percent of Hispanic children and 67.7 percent of Asian American children live in areas that fail to meet federal smog standards. In 2000, African American children were three to four times more likely than white children to be hospitalized for asthma, five times more likely to seek care for asthma in an emergency room, and three times more likely to die from asthma than white children.
What You Can Do
Find out if the air quality in your community may be endangering the health of your children. There are many sources of information on air quality including federal agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency, state and local air quality officials, the American Lung Association, and even local news sources, which often include reports on air quality as part of the daily weather report.
Contact your elected officials and ask them to strengthen clean air laws to reduce air pollution from coal-burning power plants. Your local Representative and your state’s Senators have the ability to pass laws that can push these dirty power plants to clean up their acts. Local elected officials like your mayor and city council can also put pressure on federal officials to pass stronger clean air laws.
Sponsor an asthma awareness event for your community. Possible resources for this type of event include local hospitals or clinics, your local chapter of the American Lung Association, or local public health agencies.
Find out where your elected officials stand on clean air issues by attending town hall meetings and writing them letters. You can also look for information from national and state groups that track the environmental voting records of elected officials such as the League of Conservation Voters or your state conservation voter league.
Register to vote and vote for the candidates that will protect your community’s air from pollution.
The American Lung Association reports each year on urban air quality in its “State of the Air” report and has fact sheets and other resources on asthma and on air pollution. Check their web site or contact your local Lung Association chapter. You can also obtain information on environmental quality in your community from national and state environmental protection agencies such as the federal Environmental Protection Agency and from the national environmental group Environmental Defense.
Many national environmental groups are working to pass stronger clean air laws. Their web sites can give you information about laws that your elected officials should be supporting. The Clear the Air coalition web site includes information about national issues and can also give you information about air pollution problems and sources in your community.