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Column: Dirty air exacerbates asthma

Kathleen Slonager

Tuesday was World Asthma Awareness Day, and this year Michiganians concerned with asthma prevention can celebrate progress on this important issue. Late last year, energy legislation was signed into law that will expand clean, renewable energy in Michigan, reducing dangerous pollution, promoting cleaner air and ultimately saving lives.

Asthma, a chronic disease that affects the lungs, is exacerbated by poor air quality. To date, more than 232,000 kids and 724,000 adults in Michigan have asthma – that’s 10 percent greater than the national rate. Unfortunately, asthma affects people of color in greater numbers. For example, Detroit’s asthma rate is 29 percent higher than the Michigan rate. A major contributor to the poor air quality in Michigan is our over-reliance on dirty coal to meet our energy needs.

The new energy laws will increase the amount of electricity we get from renewable sources by 50 percent. The laws also ramp up energy efficiency by maintaining the highly successful energy efficiency standard, which has saved ratepayers more than $5 billion since 2009, according to the Michigan Public Service Commission. The cheapest electricity is the electricity we don’t use, and the less coal we burn to generate electricity, the healthier our communities will be.

Coal-fired power plants spew dangerous pollutants into our air and water that threaten the health of Michiganians – especially those with asthma. Toxins from burning coal promote higher ground level ozone, which can trigger asthma attacks. The pollutants from Michigan’s coal-fired power plants are responsible for over 68,000 asthma attacks and more than 180 premature deaths each year.

Burning coal also emits carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which accelerates climate change. Climate change can increase levels of ozone and allergens that cause asthma attacks - another major concern for the health of residents. Warmer temperatures and a changing climate have caused organizations such as the Michigan Department of Community Health to prepare for increasing rates of asthma and respiratory illnesses. Higher risk of asthma and other respiratory diseases due to warmer temperatures, increased levels of the ozone and dangerous pollutants can be mitigated by accelerating our transition away from dirty coal to clean, renewable energy like wind and solar.

That’s why it was so crucial lawmakers passed energy reform that increases our use of clean, renewable energy. Replacing our dated and dirty coal-fired power plants with clean energy sources like wind and solar helps reduce dangerous pollution and protects the health of Michigan families, children and seniors, especially those with asthma and other respiratory diseases. We need further legislative support that hastens the retirement of coal-fired power plants. Doing so will save countless lives and improve air quality for all Michigan residents.

Air pollution puts millions of Michiganians at risk – particularly those with asthma. Clean energy sources and energy efficiency will help make sure all Michigan families, children and seniors have clean air to breathe.

Kathleen Slonager is executive director of the Asthma & Allergy Foundation of America Michigan Chapter.