Pollution Politics makes for Happy Bedfellows

The California legislature has just passed legislation that may have a greater influence on our nation’s future even than all the feverish debates over Hilary Clinton’s emails. In voting to reduce California’s greenhouse gas emissions to 40% below 1990 levels in the next 14 years (wow!), California has crossed the Rubicon into a post-carbon era. California—and therefore the US—has decided that the future will be fueled without fossils.


This is good news for California, good news for the globe, and good news for your mental health.


To see why, you have to understand how the bill passed. Just a few weeks ago it looked like the climate change bill was dead in the water, victim of oil industry lobbying and the usual political timidity. Then the environmentalists from the wealthy and largely white coastal areas started to really listen to the social justice and community activists from inland California. They heard about air pollution from the transportation sector that is worse in Bakersfield than in any other city in the United States.   They heard that one-third of the children in Merced county, in the Central Valley, have been diagnosed with asthma. And they heard about the 24% unemployment rate in inland Imperial County.


It was no longer enough to just say that avoiding climate change affects everyone. Climate policy had to have direct benefits—more jobs and cleaner air—in disadvantaged areas. The goal, said one advocate, was “to make mariachi music as likely to be heard from an electric car’s radio as National Public Radio.”


The deal that passed two weeks ago will get us there. It pairs major reductions in greenhouse gases with cuts to specific local polluters, like oil refiners, with investments in clean energy that will bring jobs to the state’s disadvantaged areas.


And that, it turns out, will make everyone happy—in more ways than one.


Worldwide, nearly 4 million people die a premature death annually due to air pollution. We know air pollution increases the risk for cardiovascular and respiratory health, including stroke, heart disease, lung cancer and asthma. Researchers have discovered that it is also linked to mental health, with increased illnesses such as adult cognitive decline and depression. In a recently released study from Swedish researchers, results suggest there may also be a link between air pollution and children’s mental health. They found children and adolescents who live in areas with higher pollution have a greater risk of insomnia and (9%) psychiatric diagnoses, even when controlling for parent separations and divorces, family income, neighborhood type and other characteristics.


The health impact is due to pollutants like nitrogen dioxide – mostly from cars – and inhaling fine particles. Small particulates (PM10 and PM2.5) have health impacts even at low levels. However, a PM2.5 reading of 12.4 or below is considered good. On average in 2013, downtown L.A. had a reading of 18. For comparison, Beijing, China – one of the worst countries for air pollution – had an average value of 90 that same year. In countries with particularly poor air quality, like China, people plan their outdoor physical activity around low-pollution days and often wear facemasks while commuting to work.


Although China’s level of air pollution might make Los Angeles look good, we’re actually one of the worst urban areas in the US. The 2016 ‘State of the Air’ report from the American Lung Association found that more than half of Americans live in an area with unhealthful levels of air pollution. Of the top 10 cities most polluted by short-term particle pollution, California cities make up six on the list! Those include Bakersfield (the most polluted), Fresno-Madera, Visalia-Porterville-Hanford, Modesto-Merced, San Jose-San Francisco-Oakland, and Los Angeles-Long Beach as the 9th most polluted urban area. Small particles from wildfires, wood-burning devices, coal-fired power plants and diesel emissions can trigger asthma attacks, heart attacks, strokes and sometimes cause death. In the U.S., 200,000 people die prematurely from air pollution every year. Typically, people who die prematurely from air pollution are estimated to be losing an entire decade off of their life.


As with most public health issues, disparities exist and evidence shows that poor and minority communities have disproportional exposure to environmental hazards. Certain groups are disproportionately affected by air pollution, including communities of color and low-income areas, which have higher concentrations of extreme-polluters (also called super-polluters or hyper-polluters). Environmental hazards affecting low-income, minority communities is a consistent pattern we’ve seen for decades, most recently in Flint, Michigan where relatively poor, minority communities had high levels of lead-contaminated water for over a year. A 2014 study found that even in the most rural states and cleanest cities, minorities are exposed to more pollution from nitrogen dioxide from cars than Whites. Nationwide, that difference in exposure equals approximately 7,000 more deaths a year from heart disease. Los Angeles has the 7th widest disparity in average exposure between lower-income minority census block groups and upper-income white ones.


The latest research linking air pollution to mental health will only widen the achievement gap between low-income, minority children and their white counterparts. The research is yet another reason to reduce outdoor and indoor air pollution, with particular efforts in high-need neighborhoods with policies that support cleaner (and affordable) transportation and energy-efficient (affordable) housing, for starters.

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