Our health will benefit from taking action on climate change

Climate change poses a significant risk to human health in the 21st century, and the opportunities to act are closing rapidly. Gov. Jay Inslee’s climate change proposal, which applies market-oriented policies to avert the most damaging impacts, deserves serious consideration and action by the Legislature.

A longtime professor, I have researched exposure to air pollution and its impact on health. Of particular interest to me is the critical co-benefit of cutting carbon pollution: cleaner air for our lungs. For example, burning fossil fuels in cars and trucks, which are responsible for nearly a third of Washington’s carbon emissions, also release a number of air pollutants linked to asthma attacks, heart disease and cancer.

The twin issues of carbon pollution and air quality are of particular importance in Pierce County, as Tacoma and a portion of the county remain out of attainment with federal clean air standards.

Decades of field studies that my colleagues and I have conducted show serious health conditions linked to air pollution. Healthier people are better prepared to learn in school and take fewer sick days off from work. This in turn can boost employer and economic productivity, and enables the health care system as a whole to function more cost efficiently. Generally, those in our state who are most exposed to air pollution can least afford health care when they get sick, and thus the costs of their illnesses are absorbed by society as a whole.

A research team at the Department of Environmental Health and Occupational Sciences in the University of Washington School of Public Health collaborated on a project over the last two years with the nonprofit Puget Sound Sage. The Diesel Exhaust Exposure in the Duwamish Study investigated the exposure of people living in the Georgetown and South Park neighborhoods of Seattle to diesel exhaust pollutants: oxides of nitrogen, black carbon, 1-nitropyrene and particulate matter. These neighborhoods also have high poverty rates and are near heavy truck traffic.

After comparing these neighborhoods to others, the study indeed showed that residents living in Georgetown/South Park were exposed to a substantially higher amount of these air pollutants. Reducing our state’s carbon pollution would help decrease this kind of exposure to air pollution – in South Park and Tacoma – and the disparity inherent in poorer neighborhoods experiencing a higher level of pollution.

Improving regional air quality benefits everyone, no matter where they live. The public health benefits of better air quality have been repeatedly demonstrated in numerous studies on the impact of the Clean Air Act. This was the vision that guided President Richard Nixon when he created the Environmental Protection Agency to protect all of us from dirty air and water.

More recently, Gov. Inslee articulated this vision at a community roundtable he attended in South Park where he was briefed on research done by UW scientists, including the diesel exhaust study. We face many risks in society, and we should take reasonable action to mitigate them. By acting to implement the governor’s climate policy, state lawmakers can address the urgent long-term risk of climate change, and also diminish the more immediate short-term of risk of air pollution.

I believe that improving public health can provide a strong source of motivation for many decision-makers to support meaningful carbon reduction goals. In an era when special interests and other political calculations may trump sound policy positions, Inslee’s commitment to addressing climate change should be seen as a breath of fresh air, literally.

Michael Yost is a professor and chairman of the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences in the UW’s School of Public Health.