Across Pennsylvania, trouble is in the air. It seems like we all know someone who suffers from the negative effects of air pollution, whether it's a child with asthma or an elderly neighbor with COPD. Unfortunately for those vulnerable Pennsylvanians, the simple act of breathing is all too often making their problems worse.
A new report from PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center found that despite decades of progress under the Clean Air Act, Pennsylvanians across the state, from cities to rural areas and everywhere in between, are suffering from unhealthy levels of air pollution. In fact, the Scranton-Wilkes-Barre-Hazleton area, home to more than 500,000 Pennsylvanians, experienced 58 days of poor air quality due to air pollution in 2018. Cumulatively, that’s almost two months of breathing dirty air.
The pollution responsible for all of this unhealthy air has been linked to health problems like heart disease, respiratory distress, worsened mental health, cancer, premature death and more. For Pennsylvania, this air pollution comes overwhelmingly from two sources: our dirty, outdated transportation system and industrial polluters like our aging fleet of coal-fired power plants.
PennEnvironment’s report also found that climate change is threatening to make these problems even worse. The fossil fuels burned in cars, trucks, and buses are now the nation’s largest source of climate pollution. To make matters worse, these pollutants feed on each other to intensify the health threat from air pollution: as climate pollution traps more heat in the atmosphere, higher temperatures trigger more smog pollution, making air quality even worse and inevitably leading to more unhealthy air days and ensuing asthma attacks.
This alarming new data comes at a critical time. After decades of improvement, our air in Pennsylvania and across the nation is getting dirtier. Increased soot pollution in 2017 and 2018 contributed to the early deaths of 100,000 people across the U.S.
Instead of doing something to reverse this disturbing trend, the Federal Government is slamming the breaks on progress. They started by rolling back federal clean cars fuel efficiency standards, which had been our most effective federal climate program, and now they’re blocking Pennsylvania and 13 other states from setting our own stronger limits on tailpipe pollution from our cars.
But there is hope: we have the solutions at our fingertips to continue to reduce air pollution and expand upon the legacy of the federal Clean Air Act. First, we must stop the rollback of the protections we already have on the books like clean cars standards. Then, we need to bring our transportation system into the 21st Century by paving the way for electric cars, buses and trucks, and expanding mass public transit. Finally, we must reign in industrial pollution and hold big polluters accountable.
Fortunately, residents in the Poconos have champions like Congresswoman Susan Wild and Congressman Matt Cartwright working hard to protect our cornerstone environmental progress. Leaders in Harrisburg and at the local level should follow their lead by tackling global warming pollution, expanding charging infrastructure for electric vehicles, and making it easier to skip the car entirely by walking, biking or taking the bus. And Governor Wolf should work on advancing clean transportation in the state and in partnership with neighboring states.
Our leaders have no time to lose in tackling the dirty air that’s making us sick, but luckily we have the roadmap to do it. We know where the pollution is coming from. What’s more: we know how to effectively clean up that pollution, because we’d been doing so successfully for a generation.
It's time we prioritize clean transportation and climate action, tackle industrial pollution, and clean up our skies once and for all. Because even one day of unhealthy air is too many.
Flora Cardoni is the Climate Defender Campaign Director with PennEnvironment. Pocono Record My Turn columns highlight voices from the Poconos region, Pennsylvania and beyond. Submit your ideas to email@example.com.