As a fourth-year medical student and future family medicine provider, I have a moral obligation ― as does any doctor ― to keep my current and future patients healthy and thriving. It’s for that reason I must speak out against acting Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler’s pending proposal, misleadingly named the “Affordable Clean Energy Rule,” to dismantle the Obama-era 2015 Clean Power Plan, which set the first and only federal limits on carbon pollution from power plants.
I’ve seen firsthand how air pollution harms our communities’ most vulnerable populations. During my pediatrics rotation last year, half of the patients on our ward were young children with asthma from Chicago’s South Side. Some of these kids had been to the hospital so many times they’d lost track, rushed by their parents into the emergency room when they could barely breathe.
We were thankfully able to successfully treat these children, but their terrifying experiences left a lasting impression on me, and I continue to be deeply troubled by the knowledge that a large number of my cases could’ve been prevented if these kids only had cleaner air to breathe. Study after study has shown the connection between dirty air and asthma exacerbations and that improving air quality has a clear and positive impact on children’s health.
“During my pediatrics rotation last year, half of the patients on our ward were young children with asthma from Chicago’s South Side. Some of these kids had been to the hospital so many times they’d lost track.”
The EPA’s proposed ACE Rule doesn’t set limits on how many tons of carbon existing coal-fired power plants can emit. Emission standards, set by individual states, would instead be based on making coal-fired power plants somewhat more efficient without specifying any actual emissions targets. This rule will consequently fail to achieve any meaningful reduction in the amount of pollution coming from these power plants. In fact, it could actually increase total pollution if coal-fired power plants that improve their efficiency were to run more frequently.
Ultimately, the EPA plans to allow old, failing coal plants that should be shut down entirely to continue operating, thus emitting more dangerous carbon pollution into our air. And this will disproportionately harm the more than 26 million Americans with asthma – including 6 million children. Indeed, the EPA’s own analysis of its own rule concluded ACE could result in up to 1,400 more premature deaths, 48,000 more asthma exacerbations and at least 21,000 missed days of school annually by 2030. And the EPA doesn’t even attempt to address this discrepancy.
One of the very first lessons a medical student learns when you get your white coat is the Hippocratic oath, which includes the promise to “do no harm.” And while Wheeler isn’t a doctor, the agency he heads similarly states that its mission is “to protect human health and the environment” – a mission that’s explicitly undermined by this new proposed rule.
When children come into the emergency room in the midst of a severe asthma attack, the scene is uniformly terrifying: chests heaving, eyes bulging and tiny neck muscles straining, all to get just an ounce more air into their lungs. The ACE Rule will ensure these events don’t just continue to happen but that they will increase, and it will be up to those of us in the medical profession to mitigate the EPA’s mistakes. But doctors aren’t perfect, and we will inevitably fail at some point to reopen a child’s airway. The death of even one additional child due to this ill-informed policy will be not just a tragedy but a callous and preventable crime.
The EPA is currently reviewing comments submitted on its proposal. The timing for a final, official rule is uncertain, but will most likely come in mid- or late 2019. I implore the EPA to carefully review the input provided by groups like Physicians for Social Responsibility and the American Lung Association.
“The death of even one additional child due to this ill-informed policy will be not just a tragedy but a callous and preventable crime.”
ACE is neither clean nor affordable. It will increase rather than decrease the amount of pollutants in the air ― pollutants that will inevitably lead to greater adverse health effects and their attendant costs. And it will only exacerbate climate change, slow the transition to cleaner, safer energy sources, and cost thousands of lives.
As the federal government attempts to undermine our critical environmental and health laws, we can and must take action at the state and local level, pushing leaders to fill the void by putting strong climate and clean energy policies in place so we can finally get a handle on the growing climate emergency.
The American people deserve an EPA that is focused on its stated mission, and that starts with Wheeler and the Trump administration strengthening lifesaving health and climate protections like the Clean Power Plan, not gutting them. The health of our children depends on it.
Eric Sullivan is a fourth-year medical student at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine and an active student member of Physicians for Social Responsibility.