Supreme Court decision is a breath of fresh air for the Northeast


Smoke rises from the Colstrip Steam Electric Station, a coal burning power plant in in Colstrip, Mont. (Matthew Brown/ AP)

Lost in the furor of Tuesday’s news was a big Supreme Court decision that many consider a win for anyone in the Northeast who enjoys the privilege of breathing.

A 6-to-2 decision by the Supreme Court upheld an Environmental Protection Agency rule that regulates the pollution that Rust Belt and Appalachian states send downwind to East Coast states, mostly by burning coal to generate electricity.

The gases at issue here are nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxides, carried on prevailing winds from 27 midwestern states to places like New York, Connecticut and New Jersey.

Here’s what the EPA Web site says about the health impact of nitrogen oxide:

Nitorgen oxides “react with ammonia, moisture, and other compounds to form small particles. These small particles penetrate deeply into sensitive parts of the lungs and can cause or worsen respiratory disease, such as emphysema and bronchitis, and can aggravate existing heart disease, leading to increased hospital admissions and premature death.

Ozone is formed when [nitrogen oxides] and volatile organic compounds react in the presence of heat and sunlight. Children, the elderly, people with lung diseases such as asthma, and people who work or exercise outside are at risk for adverse effects from ozone. These include reduction in lung function and increased respiratory symptoms as well as respiratory-related emergency department visits, hospital admissions, and possibly premature deaths.”

As for sulfur dioxide, the message is very similar:

“Current scientific evidence links short-term exposures to SO2, ranging from 5 minutes to 24 hours, with an array of adverse respiratory effects including bronchoconstriction and increased asthma symptoms.  These effects are particularly important for asthmatics at elevated ventilation rates (e.g., while exercising or playing.)

Studies also show a connection between short-term exposure and increased visits to emergency departments and hospital admissions for respiratory illnesses, particularly in at-risk populations including children, the elderly, and asthmatics.”

According to the American Lung Association, particles smaller than 10 microns (one-seventh the diameter of a human hair) can work their way deep into lung tissue. Particles smaller than .1 microns can pass through the lungs and into the blood stream.

How dangerous are they? In one study of 545 U.S. counties between 2000 and 2007, “researchers found that people had approximately four months added to their life expectancy on average due to cleaner air. Women and people who lived in urban and densely populated counties benefited the most.”

Another study of six U.S. cities from 1974 to 2009 estimated that about 34,000 premature deaths a year could be prevented by reducing annual levels of particle pollution.

Chronic exposure to particle pollution has been linked to “slowed lung function growth in children and teenagers; significant damage to the small airways of the lungs; increased risk of dying from lung cancer; increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease and increased risk of lower birth weight and infant mortality.

“…Research into the health risks of 65,000 women over age 50 found that those who lived in areas with higher levels of particle pollution faced a much greater risk of dying from heart disease than had been previously estimated. Even women who lived within the same city faced differing risks depending on the annual levels of pollution in their neighborhood.”

Lenny Bernstein writes the To Your Health blog. He started as an editor on the Post’s National Desk in 2000 and has worked in Metro and Sports.
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Lenny Bernstein | April 29