Shouldn’t Our Children Have the Right To Clean Air?

This essay originally appeared on BlogHer.

Did you know we take between 18,000 and 28,000 breaths a day? That’s a lot of in/out/in/out. And yet it’s something we rarely think about. It’s so natural, so essential, it doesn’t require us to think — until we have to.

I’ve been thinking about breathing lately. It may have been the yoga class I took the other day. “Focus on breath,” said the instructor. And so I did.


Focus on…

Or perhaps it was because of a recent phone call with my mother. She spent the entire time coughing, struggling to catch her breath as a result of a terrible bout with bronchitis. “Breathing is so hard,” she said.

Or perhaps it was because my teenage daughter was diagnosed with exercise-induced asthma. No one in my family or my husband’s family has this disease, but our daughter does. She plays year-round club soccer and runs track; she’s outdoors, breathing hard, almost every day. Now, not only are her muscles straining, so are her lungs.

I shared this story with my friend, the artist Faisal Abdu’Allah. He said, “Breathing’s been on my mind, too.” He lives in London and his hometown is busy preparing for the 2012 Olympics. Thinking of the athletes struggling to breath in the polluted air, motivated him to create a film called Double Pendulum.

I was reminded of his film during a recent luncheon I attended on behalf of the Environmental Defense Fund. They’ve launched a new initiative called the Moms Clean Air Force. They want to fight to reduce the health risks to our children brought on by air pollutants. You know, the kind that leaves your daughter fighting for breath as she’s racing to the finish line.

Here’s what I learned:

  • American coal plants produce 386,000 tons of hazardous air pollutants every year.
  • These pollutants infect our children through the air and the food supply (That mercury in tuna? Well, now you know where it comes from).
  • The pollutants emitted by coal plants have been linked to birth defects, immune disorders, cancer, and … asthma.

Coal plant emissions were restricted by the Clean Air Act, signed into law in 1970 by President Richard Nixon. In 1990, President George Bush signed an amendment providing for tighter regulations. However, it wasn’t until 2000 that coal-fired plants were included in the Clean Air Act.

Now the act is being dismantled one tarnished piece of coal at a time. According to MCAF, this past spring, the Environmental Protection Agency [EPA] introduced a series of rulings which would set new standards for mercury and ozone depletion. These rulings would require coal-fired plants to install emission filters on their smoke stacks providing for a significant reduction in pollution. Unfortunately, these efforts to protect our inalienable right to clean air, have become a hot potato in the game of politics.

Last week, President Obama rejected the EPA’s efforts to tighten standards for pollution. His rationale? There is too much pressure from republicans and industry to make this change. He said he would consider supporting it in 2013. Assuming, of course, he is reelected.

Industry lobbyists and certain Republicans applauded his decision. They argue that any limit on business results in lost jobs, something no one wants in a troubled economy such as the one we are all navigating right now.

It is unclear to me how requiring coal-fired plants to place filters on their smokestacks would reduce jobs. Seems to me more jobs are created as people are hired to design, create, and install the filters. In fact, many responsible coal-fired plant owners have already installed these filters at no loss of jobs or downturn in their businesses.

According to an article in The New York Times, environmentalists were deeply dismayed, calling the President’s actions a “bald surrender to business pressure, an act of political pandering and, most galling, a cold-blooded betrayal of a loyal constituency.” Yep.

Let’s be clear: Clean air is not a left or right issue. It’s an issue that effects all of our children tens of thousands of times each day.

My daughter made me a CD of her favorite songs recently. In it was “Breathe Me” by Sia. As I drove to a meeting, I blithely sang along until I stumbled over these lyrics:

I am small

I’m needy

Warm me up

And breathe me

I want my daughter, and my sons, to breathe fully and deeply. I want them to have the freedom to not even think about this essential human act. As a mother, is that too much to ask?


4 responses to “Shouldn’t Our Children Have the Right To Clean Air?

  1. Thanks so much for this, Lisen. I share your concern. My 4-year-old has “reactive airways.” It’s hard to know what brings on a wheezing attack—sometimes it seems to be a reaction to dust, but sometimes it’s triggered by a long, hard belly laugh.

    It’s ridiculous that we should even be having a debate about regulating an industry that is making our kids sick.

  2. Lisen, it is not too much to ask, well that is my humble opinion. Even more so, we may say that we have an obligation to stand up for what is not right, and what is stopping us reach our true potential. I must admit that I have suffered from complacency, that the problem of air polution is that of other people of other places. But we are connected, arent we. In every way. What distinguishes the air I breathe from the oxygen in my blood from the makeup of the cells that make my body? I find it hard to draw a line between the air I breathe and me. Sitting in my complacency doesn’t sit well with me anymore. So I write this post to offer my support to what you are saying, in the hope that this may add fuel to this discussion and to raise awareness of the importance of caring for our environment.

    • Luke,
      Thanks for reading and for sharing your thoughts. I had the chance to visit your website and shared it with my husband. His company, Enphase Energy, is working on making solar even more efficient. You might want to check them out:

      • Hi Lisen, thanks for your reply and for the website. Enphase Energy definately looks interesting. I am not sure why events conspired to help me learn of this but I am sure it was for a reason. I’ll make some further enquiries via the Enphase site.

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