Ho Hum. Air Pollution Is Harming Your Children. So What Else Is New?

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Thanks to the billions of dollars spent by fossil fuel companies over the past 30 years, a significant portion of the human population believes that Al Gore is a raving lunatic, climate scientists are just hired guns who live in luxury thanks to exorbitant salaries, and reducing carbon emissions is a dastardly plot cooked up by socialists to crash the US economy.

Not smart, but okay, let’s assume for a minute all that is true — climate change is indeed a Chinese hoax and we can keep pumping unlimited quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere without degrading the ability of humans and thousands of other species to inhabit the Earth.

Fossil Fuels & Children’s Health

But consider this. What if the waste products from burning fossil fuels are endangering the lives of your children? Would you still shrug your shoulders and say, “So what?” Or would you demand your government take effective action to protect your kids from harm?

That is really the stark choice researchers at the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health claim we are facing. There is a wealth of research on how air pollution affects the health of adults, but relatively little focused on the effects on children. They reviewed 205 peer-reviewed studies published between January 1, 2000, and April 30, 2018, to gather information on the relationship between the concentration of exposures to air pollutants and health outcomes in children

Those studies focus on the effects of fuel combustion by-products, including particulate matter, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and nitrogen dioxide. The report includes a table providing information on the risk of health outcomes from exposure to those airborne pollutants. The studies reviewed include research conducted on 6 continents, according to Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health.

The Columbia Study

The study, entitled “Towards a Fuller Assessment of Benefits to Children’s Health of Reducing Air Pollution and Mitigating Climate Change Due to Fossil Fuel Combustion,” was published December 12 in the journal Environmental Research.

“Policies to reduce fossil fuel emissions serve a dual purpose, both reducing air pollution and mitigating climate change, with sizable combined health and economic benefits,” says lead author Frederica Perera, director of CCCEH and a professor of Environmental Health Sciences. “However, because only a few adverse outcomes in children have been considered, policymakers and the public have not yet seen the extent of the potential benefits of clean air and climate change policies, particularly for children.

“There is extensive evidence on the many harms of air pollution on children’s health,” she says. “Our paper presents these findings in a convenient fashion to support clean air and climate change policies that protect children’s health.” If the ground-breaking climate litigation known as Juliana Vs. US ever gets to trial, the results of this study could be used to buttress the plaintiffs’ claim that the federal government is required by the Constitution to provide an environment that is safe for human habitation.

The World Health Organization Speaks

The World Health Organization estimates more than 40% of the burden of environmentally related disease and about 90% of the burden of climate change is borne by children under the age of 5, even though that age group constitutes just 10% of the global population. The direct health impacts in children of air pollution from fossil fuel combustion include adverse birth outcomes, impairment of cognitive and behavioral development, respiratory illness, and potentially childhood cancer.

As a major driver of climate change, combustion of fossil fuel is also directly and indirectly contributing to illness, injury, death, and impaired mental health in children through more frequent and severe heat events, coastal and inland flooding, drought, forest fires, intense storms, the spread of infectious disease vectors, increased food insecurity, and greater social and political instability. These impacts are expected to get worse in the future the researchers say.

Change The Debate

So there it is, people. Forget about the polar bears in the Arctic, melting permafrost in Siberia, rising ocean levels, and a warming planet. Remove “climate change, “global warming,”  and “carbon tax” from your vocabulary. Just focus on whether you want your children to be healthy or sick and whether they should be able to exercise their full intellectual capacity or be restricted in their thinking ability.

It’s your choice. The battle to keep humans from destroying the world we live in has gotten bogged down in how the issue is framed. So forget what doesn’t work and reframe the debate into something that does work. Children’s health is a topic everyone can support, whether you are a Trumpie or a cheese-eating, wine-swilling socialist.

It could be the engine that drives the Green New Deal movement forward. Let’s stop banging our heads against the wall of ignorance fashioned over the past several decades by the fossil fuel industry. Let’s make all the money they spent on climate denial just another stranded asset after the topic changes from protecting our planet to protecting our kids.

Can you imagine the Koch brothers and the army of evil minions trying to claim the health of our children is nothing to get excited about? They can bash climate scientists all they want, but when they start bashing kids, prepare for some serious backlash. Not even Faux News will be able to save them.

Humans are genetically engineered to ignore distant threats, no matter how real they may be. But protecting children from harm is something that is deeply ingrained in us all. Let’s use that to our advantage — while there’s still time.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

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