By Administrator Gina McCarthy
The public health case for climate action is compelling beyond words. The interagency Climate and Health Assessment released last month confirms that climate change endangers our health by affecting our food and water sources, the weather we experience, and the air we breathe. And we know that it will exacerbate certain health threats that already exist – while also creating new ones.
As we celebrate the recent signing of the historic Paris Agreement by countries around the world, there’s no better time to reflect on EPA’s many ongoing efforts to fight climate change and protect the air we breathe.
As part of our “Aim High” effort to highlight success stories from across the agency, I asked EPA staff to share examples of their work to protect public health by taking action on climate and air quality. Here are some highlights:
Asthma Awareness Month: Asthma affects nearly 23 million Americans and disproportionally impacts low-income and minority communities. In the U.S., the direct medical costs of asthma and indirect costs, such as missed school and work days, amount to over $50 billion a year. Every May, EPA leads a National Asthma Awareness Campaign to increase public awareness about asthma risks, strengthen partnerships with community-based asthma organizations, and recognize exceptional asthma programs that are making a difference. Every year, this effort reaches 9,000 groups and individuals and provides them with the information and motivation to take action.
U.S EPA Africa Megacity Partnership: EPA’s environmental program in sub-Saharan Africa is focused on addressing the region’s growing urban and industrial pollution issues, including air quality and indoor air from cookstoves. The World Health Organization estimates that exposure to smoke from cooking causes 4.3 million premature deaths per year. EPA and the Ghana Environmental Protection Agency are working together under the Africa Megacities Partnership to develop an integrated air quality action plan for Accra. As a result of this partnership, Ghana EPA has already made significant progress using air quality monitoring and analysis and is serving as a model for other African cities with limited data, that want to take action.
Climate Change and Water Utilities: Between 1980 and 2015, the United States was impacted by more than 20 major droughts, each costing over one billion dollars. EPA staff in the Office of Water developed an easy-to-use guide to assist small- to medium-sized water utilities with responding to drought. The Drought Response and Recovery Guide for Water Utilities, release last month, includes best practices, implementation examples and customizable worksheets that help states and communities set short-term/emergency action plans, while also building long-term resilience to drought. EPA staff also developed an interactive drought case study map that tells the story of how seven diverse small- to medium-sized utilities in California, Texas, Georgia, New Mexico, Kansas, and Oklahoma were challenged by drought impacts and were able to successfully respond to and recover from drought.
Outreach on Risks from Wood Smoke: Exposure to particle pollution from wood smoke has been linked to a number of adverse health effects. Valleys in New England, where terrain and meteorology contribute to poor dispersion of pollutants, are especially vulnerable during winter air inversions. EPA Region 1 used publically available study results, databases and in-house Geographic Information System resources to develop “The Valley Identification Tool” that identifies populated valleys throughout New England that are at risk for wood-smoke pollution. Using this tool, EPA and state air quality managers and staff can better plan air-quality monitoring, outreach, and mitigation.
Biogas to Energy: Water Resource Recovery Facilities (WRRFs) help recover water, nutrients, and energy from wastewater. EPA Region 9 is working with WRRFs to boost energy production through the addition of non-traditional organic wastes ranging from municipally collected food scraps to the byproducts of food processing facilities and agricultural production. As a result of these efforts, some of these facilities are becoming “energy positive,” producing enough energy to power the facility and transferring excess energy into the electricity grid for use by others. EPA, in collaboration with universities and industry, is also working to collect and share information on co-digestion practices and biogas management technologies. This work helps improve understanding of the air quality impacts of biogas-to-energy technologies and helps state and local governments, regulators, and developers identify cleaner, geographically-appropriate and cost-effective biogas management options.