Pollution worsens kids' asthma, but efforts to cut it split Congress

McClatchy NewspapersJune 8, 2011 

WASHINGTON — Summer air pollution could trigger more asthma attacks for children who live in industrial cities, and the Environmental Protection Agency would like stricter rules to cut smog.

Congress is split on the agency's proposal, however, with some Republicans saying the EPA's regulatory agenda could cost businesses as well as drive up energy expenses for families. Clean air advocates counter that low standards for pollution cost families by endangering children's health.

The EPA's proposed air-pollution standards are "long overdue," Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., said Wednesday at a hearing of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee's clean air subcommittee. He pointed to his own state, where there are nearly 25,000 children with asthma in a state of just 1 million people. Someone needs to speak for the children, Whitehouse said.

"These children are frankly not heard, and the cost to them is not heard," he said. "The polluting industries are heard loud and clear."

The EPA is expected to release proposed new ozone-pollution regulations in July. Also in July, the agency is scheduled to establish greenhouse-gas standards for new and updated power plants. It's scheduled to propose standards for refineries in December.

The Union of Concerned Scientists, an environmental advocacy group, warned last week that bad air days from ground-level ozone pollution will get worse in much of the U.S. as a result of climate change unless pollution is reduced.

Health specialists who spoke at Wednesday's hearing said they didn't know what caused asthma, which sometimes is inherited, but that air toxins did trigger attacks.

Several health experts testified that asthma is extremely hazardous to children, especially those younger than 5. Ground-level ozone, the main component in smog, causes burning in the eyes and throat, shortness of breath and coughing, as well as asthma attacks and other lung problems. Children and the elderly are especially vulnerable.

"Asthma is the most common chronic disease of childhood and is responsible for a large amount of health care expenditures and lost school days," testified James Ginda, a respiratory therapist from Rhode Island.

Patty Resnik, the corporate director at Christiana Care Health System in Delaware, said the economic costs of asthma ranged from $12.7 billion to $19.7 billion a year. She said studies showed that this comprised medical costs as well as missed days of work for parents of asthmatic children.

Asthma's effect on children isn't the question, said economist Margo Thorning, a senior vice president at the American Council for Capital Formation, a pro-business economic research group. Her group's studies show that the EPA's air-quality regulations have been harmful to the economy since they were enacted in 1990. Thorning said the Clean Air Act Amendments had led the GDP to decline by $79 billion in 2010 and that they were projected to slash $110 billion from the GDP in 2020.

Republican senators agreed that the costs of reducing air pollution further would be too high.

The EPA has been a frequent target of the Republicans who control the House of Representatives as well as Republican senators from oil-producing states.

Sen. David Vitter, R-La., said he had "absolutely no confidence in the science coming out of the EPA."

Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., said there was no question that everyone supported the well-being of children, but President Barack Obama's administration had encouraged an "aggressive regulatory regime," he said.

"It's designed to make the energy we use more expensive," he said.

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