As practicing physicians, we see the health impacts of air pollution and climate change every day. As a father, I’ve felt how scary it was when our infant son struggled to breathe. Allowing children to suffer from asthma is an unacceptable harm brought on by our addiction to fossil fuels. It’s our responsibility to keep our children safe from air pollution. When forest fires burn and the air turns bad, our older vulnerable patients with congestive heart failure and lung disease also really suffer. We’ve also seen heat stress causing kidney failure and heart attacks. Human suffering as a direct result of our fossil fuel use is not an abstract risk, it’s a daily reality in our practice.
Doesn’t the Pacific Northwest have great air quality?
Despite our reputation as the Evergreen State, cities and counties in Washington are among the dirtiest in the country for air pollution. In 2017, The Seattle-Tacoma area was ranked nationally by the American Lung Association as the 17th most polluted from particulate matter, beaten out narrowly by Yakima as the 16th most polluted.* Each year, 1,100 people die in Washington due to outdoor air pollution, and small particulates (PM 2.5) are responsible for $190 million in direct and indirect healthcare costs according to the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency.**
Studies show that there is really no safe level of air pollution— there is a linear relationship between pollution (PM 2.5 and ground level ozone) concentration and acute respiratory and cardiovascular illness and overall mortality. Sharp spikes in air pollution are associated with increased acute risk while chronic exposure increases lifetime risk.
The vast majority of our acute air pollution can be traced directly to the fuels powering our vehicles. Transportation is also the largest source of climate pollution in Washington State, responsible for nearly half of our state’s overall greenhouse gas emissions. Transportation emissions release toxic particles including particulate matter, volatile organic compounds, and other harmful air pollutants that are linked to cardiovascular disease, asthma, premature death, and cancers.
Low-income communities and communities of color, often the closest to highways and other roads with high volumes of traffic, suffer the most from air pollution. They are also least likely to have the resources to cope with disease or pay for healthcare. In King County, diesel particulate pollution contributes to a reduction in life expectancy by 13 years for those living in the Duwamish Valley as compared to cleaner parts of the County.
So what can we do about it?
By cleaning up climate and air pollution, a Clean Fuel Standard is one of the most important ways to improve public health and save on healthcare costs in Washington.
A study commissioned by the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency in 2019, found that even a regional Clean Fuel Standard for King, Pierce, Kitsap, and Snohomish County alone would save $45 million in health costs from reduced premature death—and the study acknowledged the true health costs savings are likely much higher. While the regional effort is no longer moving forward, the state has a chance to act. The multi-year effort to set robust statewide targets for reducing the carbon intensity of fuels, and prioritize reducing pollution in communities that are currently most harmed through targeted investments in transportation electrification resumes in 2021. Now that Washington will have 100% clean electricity by 2045, electrifying most of our vehicles, along with using clean, sustainable biofuels for aviation and heavier-duty transportation, is one of the most effective options in our climate policy toolkit.
We have an opportunity to improve our health starting now and to take a foundational step in getting dirty fossil fuels out of our transportation system. The Washington State Legislature must pass the Clean Fuel Standard. Join us in demanding that they prioritize our health over fossil fuel company profits!
*“American Lung Association’s State of the Air, 2016,” American Lung Association. Accessed January 30, 2017: http://www.lung.org/assets/documents/healthy-air/state-of-the-air/sota-2016-full.pdf
** “Health Effects and Economic Impacts of Fine Particulate Matter Pollution in Washington” (2009). Washington Department of Ecology, Air Quality Program. Accessed January 30, 2017: https://fortress.wa.gov/ecy/publications/documents/0902021.pdf
Where can I learn more about climate and public health impacts?
Join a public, free webinar next month on how our health and climate are inextricably linked and how acting on climate change, cleaning up our air and water quality, and transitioning to a clean energy economy will help us and our climate stay health and well.
October 8 at 10 AM PT | Click here to RSVP
Speakers include Climate Solutions, Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility, American Lung Association, the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency, and Oregon Environmental Council.
About the authors:
Chris Covert-Bowlds practices Family Medicine with Kaiser Permanente in Seattle and serves on the Board of Directors and the Climate and Health Task Force at Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility
Mark Vossler practices Cardiology at Evergreen Health in Kirkland and serves as the President of Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility