Saturday was Earth Day, an environmental awareness event created in 1970 and observed around the country every year since.
However it might (or might not) have been acknowledged in Georgia this year, Earth Day weekend seems an appropriate time to draw attention to some environmental news about the state that is mostly quite good — at least for now.
The American Lung Association has issued its annual “State of the Air” report which, as summarized in Georgia Health News, shows the state has improved, in some cases dramatically, in the three most prevalent forms of serious air pollution.
Especially encouraging: Columbus has shown some of the most significant improvements of all.
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June Deen of the American Lung Association told GHN Wednesday that primary credit for Georgia’s more breathable atmosphere goes to the Clean Air Act. That’s where this story gets both gratifying and worrisome.
There were several significant pieces of federal legislation pertaining to air quality passed in the 20th century. The 1955 Air Pollution Control Act, signed into law by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, mandated funding for air quality research; the 1963 Clean Air Act expanded the 1955 law by acting on the results of those studies.
But what we now generally refer to as the Clean Air Act is the comprehensive law passed in 1970 — the same year Earth Day was established, and the year President Richard Nixon, by executive order, created the Environmental Protection Agency. The Clean Air Act was strengthened by Congress during the administration of President George H.W. Bush in 1990, legislation that then-EPA Administrator William K. Reilly called the most important achievement of his term in that post.
EPA has attributed the prevention of thousands, perhaps millions of deaths, of both adults and infants/children, to reductions in particulate pollution and ozone levels mandated by clean air laws. Reductions in health problems like heart disease, asthma and bronchitis are even more significant. Ozone, critically important in the upper atmosphere but toxic at human breathing level, is directly related to vehicle and other mechanical emissions.
Yet in the latest Lung Association report, no Georgia cities were listed among the most polluted in ozone and particle pollution, even though Atlanta is, by 2016 census estimates, the ninth-largest metropolitan statistical area (MSA) in the U.S.
The report card didn’t contain all good marks by any means. On a measurement of the numbers of days with dangerously high ozone levels, Fulton, Henry and Rockdale, all metro Atlanta counties, earned an F, while Gwinnett and DeKalb graded D.
But on the report’s “cleanest” list for short-term particulate pollution are Atlanta, Athens, Augusta, Brunswick, Rome, Savannah … and Columbus. And Muscogee is on the report’s short list of counties being graded “A” on both ozone and particle pollution.
The Lung Association attributes much of the improvement to reduction in emission from such sources as coal-fired power plants and inefficient, high-polluting diesel engines.
But those air quality and human health gains are in jeopardy of being reversed, Deen told GHN, by Trump administration plans to cut EPA funding by almost a third and its staff by more than 20 percent.
“You can’t drain the swamp and leave all the people in it,” Mick Mulvaney, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, said last month. “So, I guess the first place that comes to mind will be the Environmental Protection Agency.”
Executive action against the Clean Power Plan could be especially damaging, given that reductions in emissions from coal-fired power plants are cited as one of the most important reasons for air quality improvement.
“If we stop this process,” Deen told GHN, “all these gains in air quality we will lose.’’
Children are especially vulnerable, Dr. Anne Mellinger Birdsong, a pediatrician, said in a statement published by GHN, “because their lungs are growing … Children spend more time outside, and are more active when outdoors. Therefore they inhale more air per pound of body weight than adults, and have more exposure to any pollution that is in the air.”
There was much to celebrate in Georgia on Earth Day 2017. Whether the same can be said next April and thereafter could be another story.