As practicing physicians, we see the health impacts of air pollution and climate change every day. As a father, I’ve felt how scary it was when our infant son struggled to breathe. Allowing children to suffer from asthma is unacceptable harm brought on by our addiction to fossil fuels. It’s our responsibility to keep our children safe from air pollution. When forest fires burn and the air turns bad, our older vulnerable patients with congestive heart failure and lung disease also suffer. We’ve also seen heat stress causing kidney failure and heart attacks. Human suffering as a direct result of our fossil fuel use is not an abstract risk; it’s a daily reality in our practices.
Despite our reputation as the Evergreen State, cities and counties in Washington are among the country’s dirtiest for air pollution. In 2017, The Seattle-Tacoma area was ranked by the American Lung Association as the 17th most polluted nationally from particulate matter, beaten out narrowly by Yakima as the 16th most polluted. Each year, 1,100 people die in Washington due to outdoor air pollution, and small particulates (PM 2.5) are responsible for $190 million in direct and indirect healthcare costs according to the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency.
Studies show that there is really no safe air pollution level with a linear relationship between pollution (PM 2.5 and ground-level ozone) concentration and both acute respiratory and cardiovascular illness and overall mortality. Sharp spikes in air pollution are associated with increased acute risk, while chronic exposure increases lifetime risk.
The vast majority of our acute air pollution can be traced directly to fuel powering our vehicles. Transportation is also the largest source of climate pollution in Washington State, responsible for nearly half of our state’s overall greenhouse gas emissions. Transportation emissions release toxic particles, including particulate matter, volatile organic compounds, and other harmful air pollutants linked to cardiovascular disease, asthma, premature death, and cancers.
Low-income communities and communities of color, often the closest to highways and other roads with high traffic volumes, suffer the most from air pollution. They also have the fewest resources to cope or pay for healthcare. In King County, diesel particulate pollution contributes to a reduction in life expectancy by 13 years for those living in the Duwamish Valley as compared to cleaner parts of the County.
By cleaning up climate and air pollution, a Clean Fuel Standard is one of the most important ways to improve public health and save on healthcare costs in Washington.
A study commissioned by the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency recently found that a Clean Fuel Standard for King, Pierce, Kitsap, and Snohomish Counties alone would save $45 million in health costs from reduced premature death; the study acknowledged the true health costs savings are likely much higher. The strong policy proposed to the Washington State Legislature will make robust targets for reducing the carbon intensity of fuels and prioritize reducing pollution in communities that are currently most harmed through targeted investments in transportation electrification. California’s Clean Fuel Standard saved the state $2.5 billion in annual avoided public health costs from fewer asthma attacks and hospitalizations, lower rates of lung cancer and heart attacks, and thousands of fewer lost workdays. That number should grow to $8.3 billion by 2025. Now that Washington will have 100% clean electricity by 2045, electrifying most of our vehicles, along with using clean, sustainable biofuels for aviation and heavier-duty transportation, is one of the most effective options in our climate policy toolkit.
We have an opportunity to improve our health starting now and to take a foundational step in getting dirty fossil fuels out of our transportation system. The Washington State Legislature must pass the Clean Fuel Standard. Join us in demanding that they prioritize our health over fossil fuel company profits!
About the authors:
Chris Covert-Bowlds practices Family Medicine with Kaiser Permanente in Seattle and serves on the Board of Directors and the Climate and Health Task Force at Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility.
Mark Vossler practices Cardiology at Evergreen Health in Kirkland and serves as the President of Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility.