The Clean Air Act: Improving the Health of our Children and Communities

Adopted into law more than forty years ago, the Clean Air Act represents our fundamental commitment to the health and wellbeing of America’s communities and children.  Throughout its history, the Act has been supported and strengthened by leaders in both political parties.  Today, however, some voices in Congress want to use the economic crisis as an excuse to weaken clean air protections for the first time in history.  But as we have known for decades, we do not need to sacrifice the health of the American people to build a stronger economy.  In fact, the health of our economy depends on the health of our communities.

By any measure, the Clean Air Act has been a successful investment.  Last year alone, Clean Air Act regulations prevented approximately 160,000 premature deaths, 130,000 heart attacks, and 1.7 million asthma attacks, delivering roughly $30 in benefits for every dollar spent.  These health gains have directly boosted our productivity.  In 2010, Americans avoided an estimated 13 million lost work days and 3 million lost school days thanks to Clean Air Act standards.  Finally, the Act has been a catalyst for innovation, making the U.S. a world leader in advanced pollution controls and clean technologies.  U.S. exports from the environmental technology industry in 2008 were over $43 billion.

Today, even as Americans use more electricity and drive more miles, local air pollution has fallen thanks to the Clean Air Act.  But many large sources of pollution remain unaddressed and our families bear the costs of this pollution every day.  The Administration is taking a number of important steps to meet our national commitment to clean air and reduce the dangers associated with air pollution that continues to impact the health of our communities, particularly our most vulnerable populations, including children and seniors.

For example, these communities would benefit from new rules for power plants that will set first-ever national limits for mercury, arsenic and other toxic chemicals and slash emissions of soot and smog that pollute the air we breathe.  While most of the country’s power plants have already installed readily available pollution controls, others, including many plants older than the Clean Air Act itself, continue to operate without modern controls.  These long-awaited public health standards will also finally provide a more level playing field for companies, enable investments that are currently on hold, and create jobs building, installing and operating pollution control equipment and new clean sources of electricity.

However, these vital public health standards, overdue by more than a decade and required by court orders, would be blocked and delayed indefinitely by a bill that recently passed the House of Representatives, the TRAIN Act.  The costs of this bill would be massive.  Each year of delay imposed by this bill would lead to tens of thousands of premature deaths, tens of thousands of heart attacks, thousands of hospital visits for respiratory and cardiovascular disease, and hundreds of thousands of childhood asthma attacks and other respiratory illnesses that would otherwise be avoided by commonsense public health standards.

This is just the first in a line of bills attacking core public health protections of the Clean Air Act, as some politicians try to use the economic crisis to push an extreme agenda.  It’s time for leaders in Congress to stand-up for the health of our families and communities by rejecting measures that would dismantle the fundamental protections that are needed to keep our country healthy, strong, and prosperous for decades to come.

Nancy Sutley is Chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality

photo: foxtongue

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