Federal Clean Air Act protects health and lives of Montanans


by Renee Klein

Simply put, clean air is essential to life. That is what the Clean Air Act is all about. We know dirty air can cause death and debilitating disease. We also know that it is essential that we continue to improve our air quality if we are to protect public health.

That is why we are concerned about ongoing attempts in Congress to undermine this important protection.

Recently, while Congress struggled to pass a budget, some members of the House and Senate tried to strip away or postpone sensible protections in the Clean Air Act that safeguard Americans and their families from toxic air pollution.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., deserves recognition for his strong votes in support of the health of Montana families and against corporate polluters. Rep. Denny Rehberg, in a House vote, did the opposite, voting for dirty sky over the Big Sky.

We know we will see additional threats to our public health in coming months, and they should be defeated every time. This is why:

Since President Richard Nixon signed it into law on the last day of 1970, the Clean Air Act has protected families across the country from breathing high levels of toxic, life-threatening air pollution. In its first 20 years, the Clean Air Act prevented more than 200,000 premature deaths, nearly 700,000 cases of chronic bronchitis and 18 million child respiratory illnesses. Over the last 20 years, emissions of the six principal air pollutants (ozone, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide and lead) have decreased by more than 41 percent.

Today, children have less lead in their growing bodies, and the thick smog that once choked many of our cities has been dramatically reduced. Air quality in at-risk Montana communities also is cleaner and better regulated. In short, the Clean Air Act has been remarkably successful, and we are all healthier for it.

Time and again, medical studies have shown that toxics emitted by coal, oil, and fossil fuels result in premature death, pulmonary and cardiovascular inflammation, asthma attacks, and heart attacks and strokes – especially among our most vulnerable – children, elderly, the impoverished and those already living with lung disease.

According to a recent bipartisan survey by the American Lung Association, an overwhelming majority (69 percent) of Americans believe that politicians in Washington, D.C., should not interfere with the Environmental Protection Agency's authority to protect Americans from toxic air pollution. Specifically, 64 percent of Americans believe that Congress should not stop the EPA from updating carbon dioxide emission standards.

As the polluters continue their campaign to gut the Clean Air Act, we should remember we have heard this song and dance before. When the Clean Air Act was passed in 1970, energy companies and auto manufacturers complained that it would be too costly and that technology didn't exist to achieve the emissions reductions. Specifically, the auto manufacturers resisted the phase out of lead in gasoline.

You would be hard-pressed today to find anyone who believes phasing out lead in gasoline was a bad idea. And despite similar protests from energy companies over the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments, the actual costs to achieve those emissions reductions amounted to just 0.6 percent of their total operating expenses.

But clean air standards not only save Americans' lives, they also save Americans' money. In 2010, it is estimated that due to averted medical bills and sick days, the Clean Air Act resulted in $1.3 trillion in cost savings. Updating and strengthening air pollution standards also spurs innovation, opens opportunities for small businesses, and creates jobs across a range of skill levels.

In the past few months, health professionals from the American Medical Association to the American Lung Association and the American Public Health Association have all voiced strong support for reducing carbon pollution and protecting the laws that keep all of us healthy.

As health care professionals, we recognize that pollution kills. The Clean Air Act has proven to be critical for protecting public health in Montana and throughout the nation. We need it today more than ever.

This opinion piece is signed by Renee Klein, president/CEO of the American Lung Association in Montana; Wade G. Hill of Healthcare Without Harm; Lora Weir of the Montana Public Health Association; Curtis Noonan, and associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Montana Center for Environmental Health Sciences in Missoula; Drs. Robert Byron and David Mark of Hardin, Dr. Robert Merchant of Billings, and Dr. Michael DiCello of Bozeman.