“Go outside and play,” the age-old advice parents have been giving their children for generations, may not be the health boon it once was. In fact, for many children, especially those suffering from asthma and those living in close proximity to coal-fired power plants, outdoor exercise may do them just as much harm as good.
Or so say two recent reports exploring the links between power plant emissions and the respiratory health of our nation’s children. The reports, conducted independently by the National Environmental Trust (NET) and the Montana Public Interest Research Group (MontPIRG), both found that emissions from power plants are linked to a host of pediatric health problems, from asthma attacks and slowed neurological growth to stunted lung development and neonatal death.
“We know that the particulate matter and some of the chemicals that come out of power plants actually harm children, and we’ve been able to do some tracking of that harm,” says NET’s Montana field representative, C.B. Pearson. “We’re just starting to get a better handle on the true public health problems associated with power plants.”
Industry observers have known for years that power plants—especially the older, coal-fired plants clustered in the Midwest and Northeast—are among the nation’s worst air polluters, releasing dangerously high levels of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, mercury and carbon dioxide.
For instance, the electricity industry emits about as much nitrogen oxide—a primary component of ozone smog—as every car and truck in the United States combined, or about 200 million vehicles. Coal-fired plants, which generate about half of all electricity consumed in the United States, account for more than 90 percent of the industry’s total air pollution.
Ironically, Montana, which has never been known for its stringent environmental laws, is home to three of the nation’s cleaner coal-fired plants, and many of the adverse effects suffered by Montanans come from power plants beyond our borders. The American Lung Association estimates that about 12,000 Montana children suffer from asthma, and more than one in five of them live within 30 miles of a power plant. Nationally, asthma rates have more than doubled in the last two decades.
Children are particularly vulnerable to air pollutants because they breathe more rapidly than adults do, have more lung surface area (relative to their body size) than adults, and pound-for-pound breathe in more air pollutants than adults. One health study cited in the MontPIRG report notes that children living in high-ozone communities who played outdoor sports year-round were three times more likely to develop asthma than those who did not play sports.
“What’s most striking is to begin to understand how these dirty power plants are a health hazard beyond belief, and we’re just not acknowledging that to the degree that we need to,” says Pearson. “The coal industry and certain power companies who happened to have the ear of the [Bush] administration are doing everything they can to make sure that they don’t have to clean up their act.”
In February, the Bush administration, which appears to be backing away from its campaign pledge to clean up the utility industry, recommended the construction of up to 1,900 new power plants nationwide. It has also proposed rolling back certain provisions of the Clean Air Act, which would require more state-of-the-art pollution controls on older plants.
Such back-pedaling was one of the reasons why Sen. Jim Jeffords (I–Vt.) defected from the Republican Party a year ago. Jeffords is now sponsor of the Clean Power Act, which would require power plants to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.
“We have made truly significant progress in reducing emissions since the first Clean Air Act in 1970,” Jeffords told an environmental rally last week on Capitol Hill. “But, so long as kids are getting asthma, and lakes and forests are damaged, we’ve got unfinished business.”