Impacts

Health

Air pollution and climate change are linked to a wide range of adverse health outcomes.

Air pollution exposure has been implicated as causing or exacerbating respiratory diseases (including asthma and changes in lung function), cardiovascular diseases, adverse pregnancy outcomes (such as preterm birth), and even death. In 2013, the World Health Organization concluded that outdoor air pollution is carcinogenic to humans. Additional research is finding links between air pollution exposure and mental and cognitive problems, including depression, autism, impaired cognitive development, dementia and Parkinson’s, and metabolic disorders, such as obesity and diabetes.

%

of NC children have been diagnosed with asthma, which is the leading medical cause of absence from school

Climate change, together with other natural and human-made health stressors, influences human health and disease in numerous ways. Some existing health threats will intensify and new health threats will emerge. Not everyone is equally at risk. Important considerations include age, economic resources, and location.

In North Carolina, the health effects of these disruptions include increased respiratory and cardiovascular disease, increased incidence of heat-related illness, injuries, premature deaths and community disruption related to extreme weather events, changes in the prevalence and geographical distribution of food- and water-borne illnesses and other infectious diseases, and threats to mental health.

African Americans and other minorities and people in low-income communities experience increased rates of adverse health impacts from air pollution and climate change due to a history of environmental racism and health disparities.

Workers removing mold from Princeville, NC home flooded after Hurricane Matthew

Workers removing mold from Princeville, NC home flooded after Hurricane Matthew. Credit: News & Observer

Economy

Public policies designed to clean up air pollution are good for our health and our economy.

We don’t have to choose between healthy air and a healthy economy. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, between 1970 and 2011, emissions of common air pollutants dropped 68%, while the U.S. gross domestic product grew 212%.  During the same period, total private sector jobs increased by 88%.  Public policies, like the Clean Air Act, drive innovation in the marketplace, creating new technologies that result in cleaner air and healthier Americans. Improved health reduces health care costs and worker absenteeism which saves employers money. Studies have shown that the public health and environmental benefits of clean air regulations far exceed the cost of implementation by a large margin. In 2010 alone, we gained approximately $1.3 trillion in public health and environmental benefits, for a cost of only $50 billion—a ratio of more than 26 to 1.

Over the past 100 years we have built an economy based on the burning of coal, oil, and gas—fossil fuels, which release carbon into the atmosphere. We now know that these emissions have caused a major change in the Earth’s climate system and that we must turn quickly to transition our economy to one based on the use of natural sources—solar, wind, and geothermal. Transitioning will require new research, new technologies, new infrastructure and new jobs. This is a triple-win for the economy, the environment, and our health.

For information about North Carolina’s growing clean energy industry, download the 2016 NC Clean Energy Industry Census from the NC Sustainable Energy Association.

Environment

Air pollution damages vegetation, acidifies streams, and affects wildlife.

Air pollution has many sources, but the burning of oil, coal and natural gas is by far the most dangerous. The carbon released from burning these fossil fuels has destabilized the world’s climate. Unfortunately, carbon dioxide emissions remain in the atmosphere for several hundred years. Currently there is no technology widely available on the market to capture carbon, so it’s essential we reduce our dependence on fossil fuels as soon as possible while we ramp up investments in energy efficiency and clean, renewable energy. There is no environmental issue more important than climate change and it’s up to our generation to ensure a safe and healthy planet for future generations.

Coal plants are also the major source of mercury which settles in rivers and lakes and is converted to methylmercury, a potent neurotoxin, by fish. North Carolina has a statewide fish advisory for mercury. The advisory urges women of childbearing age, pregnant and nursing women and children under 15 to limit their consumption of largemouth bass caught in the state and other fish high in mercury. This toxic air pollutant also harms wildlife, including bald eagles, who eat fish from our rivers and lakes.

Burning fossil fuels also emits nitrogen oxides, a component of ground level ozone, a pollutant with human health impacts, but also damages our natural environment. The EPA created a secondary ozone standard to improve public welfare protection, particularly for the effects on trees, other plants and their ecosystems. Air pollution in the form of nitrogen dioxides and sulfur dioxides from coal plants play a major role in the formation of acid rain which has caused major damage to trees on Mt. Mitchell and in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.