Forty years ago, the nation made a commitment–in the form of the Clean Air Act—to cleaner air that would protect all Americans, especially our most vulnerable populations. Yet today, far too many American families are living and working in neighborhoods with dangerous levels of air pollutants that deteriorate their health and quality of life.
One of the biggest impediments to health and well being is the air we breathe: 40,600 deaths per year are related to outdoor air risk factors and 13 percent of the country’s disease burden could be prevented by environmental improvements. And, the environment can disproportionally affect children, who are often at greater risk from exposure to bad air during their developmental years.
In addition, cardiovascular and respiratory disease is caused or exacerbated by exposure to unhealthy air. In fact, the number of people with asthma, a chronic lung disease, has grown at an alarming rate, as the number of people diagnosed with the disease grew by 4.3 million from 2001 to 2009. Asthma, just one of the diseases triggered by poor air, takes a tremendous toll on the health and wealth of the nation: each day nine Americans die from asthma and, in 2007, asthma was linked to 3,447 deaths.
We can save lives and keep people healthy by implementing and enforcing the rules and regulations of the Clean Air Act. Most notably, an analysis by TFAH and the Environmental Defense Fund found that four rules – the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, the Utility Mercury and Air Toxics Rule, the Industrial Boiler Rule, and the Cement Kiln Rule – could yield more than $82 billion in Medicare, Medicaid and other health care savings for America through 2021. These rules are expected to lower emissions rates of a number of air pollutants, including mercury, arsenic, acid gases, smog, soot and others, which would reduce rates of premature mortality, chronic bronchitis, non-fatal heart attacks, cardiovascular hospital admissions, respiratory hospital admissions and emergency room visits related to asthma.
At the community level, Boston’s Children’s Hospital has already drawn this connection and worked to make their surrounding community healthier by creating a Community Asthma Initiative (CAI). By focusing on the air people at risk for an asthma attack breathe, the CAI has shown a return on investment of $1.46 to insurers for every $1 spent.
Unfortunately, there are only pockets of the country that have drawn these connections and are actively working to improve the environment to ensure people can be as healthy as they want. Quite simply, far too many American families have little choice but to inhale polluted air on a regular basis.
No American – regardless of age, race, socioeconomic status, or otherwise – should be faced with that reality. It is up to our policymakers and legislators to create, pass, enact, fund, support implement and enforce policies, like the Clean Air Act rules, Action Plan and community-based prevention programs, that will ensure the environment and air around us does no harm.