Our Health

An illustration of human lungs, overlaid on a smoky background.

By David J. Hayes
March 19, 2020

We usually take our health for granted. No more. The COVID-19 pandemic presents an acute health risk that is upending our country, and our world. 
The COVID-19 crisis provides us with a tragic, but teachable, moment to consider less visible, chronic public health threats that we rarely think or talk about, but which are causing widespread, debilitating respiratory conditions and premature deaths.
I am referring to the pollution-based health risks that emanate from the combustion of fossil fuels in our cars, power plants and industrial complexes, including ground-level ozone or smog, and the fine inhalable particles known as PM 2.5 (meaning that the particles are no larger than 2.5 micrometers).

We tend to discount the serious adverse health impacts that these pollutants are causing. Perhaps it’s because our skies are clearer now than they used to be, prompting us to incorrectly presume the absence of pollution. (PM 2.5 particles are invisible; they are 30 times smaller than the width of a human hair.) Also, today’s air pollution poses more of a chronic, than an acute health threat, making its health damage less apparent to most of us. Finally, pollution is not distributed uniformly, or equitably. Disadvantaged communities often live closer to concentrated pollution sources and, as a result, are disproportionately suffering from it.
Yet the science is clear. The seminal “Harvard Six Cities” study demonstrated the connection between PM 2.5 and adverse health effects in 1993. More recent studies have shown that even short-term exposure to microscopic PM 2.5 particles causes serious health impacts and that air pollution is shortening Americans’ lives by 1.4 years on average. More than 25 million Americans — including nearly 7 million children — already suffer from asthma, and childhood asthma continues to trend upward. If that’s not enough, some scientists are postulating that lung damage caused by air pollutants may increase the risk of contracting COVID-19.
So let’s take advantage of the teachable moment presented by COVID-19 and confront the reality that the combustion of fossil fuels is causing serious health impacts and unacceptable levels of premature death in the U.S. Armed with our new-found appreciation for public health threats, and inspired by the power of collective action that we are now seeing across America, let’s redouble our efforts to transition our economy away from fossil fuels and toward clean energy resources. Doing so will enable Americans to live longer and lead healthier lives. Plus, we will be removing the primary sources of the greenhouse gases that are causing climate change — and saving the earth’s health in the bargain.

David J. Hayes is a nationally recognized environmental, energy and natural resources lawyer who leads the State Energy & Environmental Impact Center.