What if I told you that America’s enemies had secretly dispersed deadly microscopic toxins invisible to the human eye into your community, filling the air with poisons that penetrate deep into your lungs and blood stream, resulting in respiratory illness, aggravated asthma, chronic bronchitis, irregular heartbeat, nonfatal heart attacks, and thousands of premature deaths in vulnerable Americans coping with heart or lung disease?
Worse, what if I also told you that your government was fully aware of this grave threat to public health, and chose not to act to protect you and your family?
You would be outraged, and rightfully so. Well you should be outraged right now, because that nightmare scenario — deadly toxins filling our air with poisons — is a fact.
For nearly 15 years, dangerous amounts of particle pollution, or soot, have been allowed to blanket our country. In my Northern Virginia district, nearly 30,000 children and 92,000 adults suffer from asthma and nearly 500,000 have been diagnosed with chronic bronchitis, emphysema, cardiovascular disease and diabetes, much of it directly related to unregulated soot.
Decades ago, science had not advanced to the point where we could identify the threat. However, few Americans are aware that as recently as six years ago, acting against the scientific advice of its own Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, the Bush Administration’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) chose to allow toxins to continue permeating our air, endangering the health of all Americans. It was an act of profound political cynicism.
Fortunately a Federal Court ruled the EPA’s inaction was in violation of the Clean Air Act, which requires the Agency to focus solely on protecting the health of people. Under President Obama’s leadership, the EPA is positioned to finally put science before politics, and implement standards that would save tens of thousands of lives a year.
The same cannot be said for the 112th Congress, where House Republicans have waged a sustained assault on the environment and public health. From blocking efforts to improve pollution controls to denying the science of climate change, the House majority has forced more than 300 anti-environmental votes during the past two years. Nearly one-third of those votes would dismantle the Clean Air Act, including regulation of particulate matter and soot. In fact, efforts to compromise with Republicans on two bills that would delay regulation of emissions from cement kilns and industrial boilers were rebuffed. I introduced amendments that would have allowed the EPA administrator to proceed with regulation only if such emissions were found to cause respiratory and cardiovascular illness, yet even those attempts to protect the public health were rejected out of hand by the House majority. House Republicans have tried to propound a false choice between a healthy economy and a healthy environment. The fact is that since 1970, the Clean Air Act has dramatically reduced air pollution, despite population growth, while America's economy has doubled in size.
There are some in Congress — including the Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition and the Defense Energy Security Caucus — not only defending our investments in clean energy, but also advocating for a more robust agenda. We understand that protecting the environment is both a public health and national security issue, and we stand ready to work with the President to implement new air quality standards, including lower soot emissions. It is clear the public understands the need to pursue these air quality and climate improvements judging from the demand for more efficient vehicles, appliances and lighting.
Congress must be an equal partner in this effort. Poor air quality affects red and blue states alike, resulting in avoidable sickness and premature deaths from coast to coast. Safeguarding the health of the American people should not be a partisan issue; it should be a national priority.
U.S. Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Dist. 11) represents Fairfax and Prince William Counties in Northern Virginia. The American Lung Association offers a free smartphone app that gives daily air quality information. It is available at www.stateoftheair.org.