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  • Mark Szybist, Natural Resources Defense Council

Sneezing and Wheezing in Pennsylvania: Climate Change, Air Pollution, and Asthma and Allergies

It's often said that the long struggle to clean up the United States' air began in Donora, Pennsylvania in 1948. That fall, an atmospheric temperature "inversion"--a fairly common event in Pennsylvania--trapped smoke from local coal-fired zinc and steel plants at the earth's surface. The result: some 20 deaths in 24 hours and hundreds of illnesses.

The Donora tragedy--and increasingly dangerous air quality in many areas of the U.S.--led in 1970 to the passage of the Clean Air Act. Thanks to that law, the air in Pennsylvania is in some respects cleaner than it was 60 years ago. Where carbon pollution is concerned, though, the Commonwealth's air is much worse. And that turns out to be bad news for Pennsylvanians who suffer from asthma and allergies.

NRDC's new report Sneezing and Wheezing: How Climate Change Could Increase Ragweed Allergies, Air Pollution, and Asthma makes a powerful case that continuing climate change is likely both to raise the levels of allergenic pollen in our air and foment the formation of ground-level ozone, a pollutant formed by reactions between nitrogen oxides (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in sunlight, making breathing more difficult for sufferers of asthma and allergies. The hardest-hit areas are likely to be those that have both ragweed and ozone problems. By this measure, Pennsylvania has the dubious distinction of being the second sneeziest and wheeziest state in the U.S, having at least four metropolitan areas--Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Allentown, and Harrisburg--that face the "double whammy" of ragweed and occasional ozone spikes. Not surprisingly, all four areas have earned the unfortunate recognition as "asthma capitals" by the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.

When it comes to ragweed--and other plants that produce allergenic pollen, like birch, oak, and pine trees--warmer temperatures and higher carbon dioxide concentrations have been linked with a longer pollen season and higher pollen levels. As for ground-level ozone, every year the burning of fossil fuels in Pennsylvania pumps tens of thousands of tons of ozone's "precursors"--NOx and VOCs--into the atmosphere. The carbon dioxide produced leads to warmer conditions that exacerbate ozone formation.

Given that 14 of the warmest 15 years on record have occurred since 2000--and that this year's heat records are blowing through previous numbers--things on the breathing front are likely to get worse for the estimated than 7.1 million American children and 18.7 million American adults who suffer from asthma, and for the similar numbers of kids and adults with seasonal allergies.

Those allergies aren't just an annoyance, by the way: more than 3.8 million work and school days are missed each year due to ragweed allergies alone. And for the 70 percent of asthmatics who have seasonal allergies, rising global temperatures and the resulting increase in ozone and pollen pose a particular threat.

In Pennsylvania and across the country, we don't have to sit idly by while our kids hack away and our elders gasp for breath. To begin with, by supporting the EPA's Clean Power Plan (CPP) to cut carbon emissions from existing power plants, we can help stabilize global (and Pennsylvania) temperatures and reduce the amounts of nitrogen oxides and VOCs that spew from power-plant smokestacks along with the carbon dioxide. That's because measures to reduce carbon emissions under the CPP--such as deploying more energy efficiency, wind and solar power--will also drive reductions in co-pollutants, such as NOx and particulate matter, from fossil power plants. Pennsylvania, in particular, has a lot to gain from these rules. In fact, our state will likely save 330 lives a year in 2020 under a carbon-cutting plan similar to the CPP. That's the most in the nation, according to a new Harvard/Syracuse University study published in the prestigious journal Nature Climate Change. An even more ambitious CPP than the one the EPA proposed last summer would save even more Pennsylvania lives, all while cost-effectively cutting carbon emissions and creating hundreds of thousands of new jobs.

Moreover, we can support the U.S. EPA's push to lower the standard for allowable ozone in our air to better protect public health and our most vulnerable populations--kids, the elderly, and people who suffer from asthma and other respiratory ailments. We can also push the Pennsylvania DEP to improve its Reasonably Available Control Technology (RACT) program for power plants and other major stationary sourcesof NOx and VOCs In December, 2014, the EPA proposed to lower the ozone standard, and the DEP is revising its RACT rule now.

NRDC's Sneezing and Wheezing report shows that global warming isn't just an abstract, long-term problem to be fobbed off on future generations. It's keeping parents up at night now, as they monitor their kids' breathing, and keeping people out of work because their allergy symptoms are too severe. These are trends that will only get worse if we don't get serious about addressing climate change through policies like EPA's Clean Power Plan. By establishing policies to cut our carbon emissions and reduce the amount of ozone-forming pollutants going into our air, Pennsylvanians can put themselves in a position to breathe easier, now and in the future.

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