July 11, 2011

Dr. Harry Wang, Senator Barbara Boxer and Sarah Bucic, RN, Clean Air Ambassador from Delaware

Click here for PSR’s national coverage on Harry’s visit

What was the purpose of your visit to Washington, D.C.?
This was an unusual coalition that Earthjustice put together because it involved a variety of groups: health professionals, faith community, environmental community and other community leaders. The coalition was co-sponsored by national PSR, the American Nurses Association, the Hip Hop Caucus, and the National Council of Churches. Earthjustice’s goal was to have a representative, which they called a “Clean Air Ambassador,” from all 50 states. I was the representative for California. The main message was to tell Congress and the White House to “let the EPA do their job.”  We were also there to encourage the EPA to set long-overdue standards, which were legislated in 1990. The Clean Air Act was passed in 1970 and there were major amendments in 1990. These standards are over 20 years coming.

In the last year, the EPA did propose mercury and air toxics standards, but it will be a struggle because Congress is trying to undermine the EPA’s authority. They’re concerned about companies that would be affected by their rules. The EPA has already backed down on rules for boiler factories. This summer a rule on ozone is due. The hearing was January 2010, and we’re still waiting to hear from the EPA.  A big concern is that they won’t set an aggressive enough standard for ozone.

Did you accomplish what you wanted to?
It was unique that we were able to speak to environmental staff of the White House and to the head of the EPA, Administrator Lisa Jackson. We met with her for 30 minutes, and I was one of the speakers on the health effects of mercury. Mercury is a neurotoxin that gets into our water and fish, and can adversely effect the brain development of fetuses and can cause loss of cognitive functioning in infants and children. The EPA’s proposed power plant rule would reduce mercury emissions by 91%.

During our day on Capitol Hill, a wide range of ambassadors from all over the country met with Senator Boxer’s staff, because she chairs the Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works. I also met staff of Congresswoman Doris Matsui from the Sacramento area, where I’m from, and staff of Delaware’s Congressman John Carney.

Most people gave us a favorable response. No one would commit to what would happen, though. The frustration is not knowing how the politics will play out. It’s  maddening that the politics carry more weight than the health consequences.

Because the Clean Air Act was passed in 1970, the EPA is required by law to show what the benefits have been. The EPA has done studies that show by the year 2020, the Clean Air Act will prevent 230,000 premature deaths each year, 200,000 heart attacks, and over 2 million asthma attacks. In 2020, it will cost $65 billion a year to clean up the air. By 2020, the economic benefits will be almost $2 trillion a year in health savings and work productivity savings. That means we will get a return of $30 for every dollar we spend on reducing pollution. That’s huge economic and health benefits. Air pollution is now linked to 6 of the 7 top causes of death for Americans. The country needs to go to safer and greener forms of energy.

How did your visit to DC relate to SF Bay’s PSR’s work?
SF Bay PSR members are already concerned about factory and air pollution. There are factories in our communities; the oil refineries in Richmond, for example. A lot of our patients have asthma. All of us have patients with heart disease, lung disease, strokes, and cancer; these conditions all have some connection to air pollution. And despite improvements since the passage of the Clean Air Act in 1970, 8 of the top 10 US cities with the worst ozone pollution are in CA.

What were the highlights of the visit for you?
I realized there’s a real window of opportunity right now in next 12 months for EPA to set some rigorous standards for air quality. Nothing has really happened in the last decade. The change in Administration is an opportunity to set the most science-based standards for ozone, mercury, cement plants, and power plants.

It was an inspirational visit. Some of the other health ambassadors shared what other communities are dealing with.  Here in California we think about cars and trucks and worry about ozone and particulate matter. But the first person I met on the shuttle from the airport was Alex Allred, from Midlothian, TX: her town is the cement capital of the US. They have so many health issues in their community and can’t get anyone to do anything because everyone with power is connected to these factories. Their only hope is that the EPA will do something. One of the factories has a quarry 500 feet from an elementary school.  That school is rated in the top 1% of most toxic elementary school sites in the US.  She told me about a lawsuit Earthjustice filed in 2004 to get EPA to take action on mercury and other air pollution from cement kilns. I got a broader picture of air pollution issues across the country from all the ambassadors.

What are next steps to influence the EPA?
The EPA is accepting comments on their mercury and air toxics standards until August 4, 2011.  We also need to talk to our Representatives (CA Senators are already on board), make sure they understand the health and economic issues involved, and oppose any legislation that would undermine the authority of the EPA.

How can PSR members get more information on these issues?
National PSR has a new report on the Clean Air Act. The American Lung Association also has a great annual report on clean air quality.

Interview by Emily Galpern