It is all too easy to forget that a healthy childhood is not just about avoiding germs and preventing accidents. Many air and water pollutants are invisible to the naked eye, so small that we often overlook their role in our children's health.
This fall, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a policy statement on climate
change and children's health, noting that children are particularly vulnerable to weather disasters, heat stress, poor air quality and food insecurity, among other threats that come with a warming climate. The organization asserts that given what we know about the link between climate change and children's health, "failure to take prompt, substantive action would be an act of injustice to all children."
In many ways, then, the U.S. government's climate action plan is truly a public health initiative. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that every dollar invested in the Clean Power Plan, a core component of the climate strategy, will deliver four dollars in health benefits. Another element of the strategy, the recently strengthened ozone standard, will also prevent hundreds of thousands of childhood asthma attacks. Asthma was once an infrequent cause of childhood illness but now it is the leading chronic disease among children, the third-ranking cause of hospitalization, and the number one reason that children miss school.
The recently proposed federal methane standards are another key component of the broader climate strategy that will help improve air quality in oil and gas drilling areas, as well as help stave off the worst effects of climate change. Methane is the primary component of natural gas and a potent climate pollutant. Methane has been an often-overlooked driver of climate change, but now that we are learning more about the threat, we must take action. Oil and gas operations are the source of over 7 million tons of methane pollution each year, which once in the atmosphere have the same warming effect as over 600 million tons of carbon dioxide, making them a good place to start by taking common sense measures to plug leaks.
In addition to the climate benefits, plugging methane leaks also keeps other pollutants that threaten public health out of the air. When methane leaks, so do dangerous volatile organic compounds and carcinogens like benzene. Many of these same chemicals also cause ozone formation, which in turn, can trigger asthma attacks.
About one out of every three Americans lives in a county with oil and gas drilling activity, which means about a third of the country's children will benefit directly from a comprehensive approach to stronger oil and gas pollution standards--even as we are protecting the planet as a whole. Requiring operators to find and repair leaks in their equipment will improve local air quality. We've seen this happen in states like Wyoming, which put a plan in place to address oil and gas air pollution in an oil and gas drilling region of the state that is making the air safer for residents.
Even though environmental policymakers are rarely seen as pioneers in children's health, their work is vital to improving public health. The broader climate agenda, including new rules that target sources of methane pollution where they occur, does a lot more than help mitigate climate change - it also delivers better health outcomes.