Statement of James M. Jeffords
Health Impacts of Power Plant Pollution
Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works
October 2, 2002
Thank you all for being here today. I'm glad we have the chance to come together to learn more about the health impacts of air pollution.
Not long ago, I was shocked to hear that as many as 50,000 people or more may be dying prematurely every year from exposure to fine particulate pollution, also known as PM-2.5 or sometimes as soot.
This chart, based on the work done by many researchers, illustrates this terrible situation. More people are dying from this dirty air than are killed in auto accidents, from breast cancer and other causes. Most of this pollution comes from the burning of fossil fuels. This combustion creates tiny, almost microscopic particles from solid matter and gases. Then, the wind spreads them far and wide, sometimes thousands of miles.
A few years ago, researchers documented fine particles coming from China and being deposited in the Pacific Northwest. More recently, the Asian Brown Cloud has been in the news because of the continent-sized nature of this smog, soot and air toxics phenomenon.
Luckily, our problems are not on the scale of the Asian Brown Cloud anymore. We can thank the Clean Air Act for that. The Act has been very effective in reducing pollution to date. And the Act provides for even greater reductions in the future if it is fully, faithfully and swiftly implemented. I hope that it will be, but the signs haven't been too promising of late.
Since the 1990 Amendments, information on the health effects of fine particle pollution has increased dramatically. Unfortunately, most of the news is bad.
In March, the Journal of the American Medical Association reported on a study which found that for increasing levels of fine particulate matter there is a corresponding increasing risk of mortality from all causes. There was an even greater risk of associated cardiopulmonary and lung cancer mortality.
Those findings mean that there are approximately 130 million people who live in areas polluted by fine particles who have about the same increased risk of dying from heart or lung disease as people who live with cigarette smokers and regularly experience second-hand smoke.
That's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the bad news. There is substantial and mounting evidence that besides death, heart disease or lung cancer, fine particles also cause decreased lung function, chronic bronchitis, and aggravated asthma. Exactly how these particles cause such damage and destruction once they get deep down into the lungs is not entirely known.
But what we do know with some certainty angers me. A report for the Clean Air Task Force found that fine particle pollution from power plants is responsible for as many as 30,000 deaths annually.
As you can see from the chart on the left side, that's more people than die from homicides or drunk driving accidents every year. On the right side, the chart shows how many people we could save by drastically cutting pollution from power plants - coincidentally those are the lives saved annually by the reductions in the Clean Power Act.
Most of that fine particle pollution appears to be coming from the older, "grandfathered" power plants. Those are the ones built before 1972 that were largely exempt from applying New Source Performance Standards.
These are the same plants that are opposing government efforts to make them apply new, cleaner technology when they make changes to their facilities. And the Administration is now thinking of making the loophole even larger through changes to the New Source Review regulations.
That is exactly the wrong direction. We cannot afford to increase pollution in that way. And we certainly cannot afford to continue wasting the lives of thousands of people every year because of pollution that is controllable and coming from obvious sources in our own backyards.
We, the Congress, the Administration, the elected officials, have a responsibility to act to prevent harm to the American public when we have evidence that a threat exists. The terrible attacks of 9/11 took the lives of 2,824 innocent people at the World Trade Center. There could not be a clearer more tangible threat to our national security.
Our rapid response has reached every corner of the world and almost every facet of American life. Now, it may lead us to an expanded war effort that could be expensive in dollars and lives.
What troubles me is that we have equally clear evidence of the threat of death and damage occurring annually from fine particulate pollution. And yet, there is no huge call to action from most in Congress or the Administration. Every year in the New York City area, power plant pollution causes 2,290 deaths, according to the studies we'll be discussing today.
Saving these lives doesn't require a war and it won't cost that much. It just requires a commitment and swift action. Perhaps our witnesses will give us good news. Maybe the threat of fine particle pollution is not as bad as the headlines and the studies suggest. I hope there's a slim chance that's right, because knowingly throwing away lives when we know how to save them just doesn't make sense.