EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy participates in a national call with health leaders on the health impacts of air pollution during National Public Health Week. Photo by Donald Hoppert/APHA

In a national call with health leaders Wednesday, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Assistant Secretary for Health Howard Koh underscored the need for continued action to protect the public from the dangers of air pollution.

While the Clean Air Act has driven significant cleanup of major air pollution sources including motor vehicles and power plants, they said challenges remain in addressing the human health impacts of air pollution, including carbon pollution from power plants and climate change.

“We are doing a lot of great work together, but the caveat is our work is not done yet,” said McCarthy to health leaders participating on the call. “That means we have public health protections that we need to continue with.”

She pointed to the growing health impacts of super storms and smog and to rising asthma rates, among other threats.

“At EPA, we are committed to improving air quality through the Clean Air Act to prevent illnesses such as lung disease and asthma, especially in underserved communities and for some of our most vulnerable populations, including children,” McCarthy said. “Through President Obama’s Climate Action Plan, we will continue this effort to protect the health of our families and future generations by taking responsible steps to cut the carbon pollution that fuels climate change.”

Roughly half of the population in the United States lives in areas with unhealthy levels of air pollution that is linked to serious health impacts, such as asthma attacks, lung cancer, heart attacks, strokes and even death, reports the American Lung Association. Air pollution also disproportionately impacts vulnerable populations already burdened with chronic diseases such as asthma, heart disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

The buildup of carbon pollution in the atmosphere leads to warmer temperatures worsening the conditions for ozone formation in some places, and making it harder to achieve healthy air for all.

“When it comes to climate change, we should act now to protect the health and well-being of our children and grandchildren,” Koh said. “The challenge of reducing air pollution will get worse if we fail to act. The Department of Health and Human Services and health leaders are ready to address these pressing issues and prepare our public health and health care systems for the impact of climate change.”

Koh mentioned the release of two new reports — one from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the upcoming release of the National Climate Assessment — that will include important data.

“These reports send a message that climate change has an enormous impact on human health,” Koh said.

The call, moderated by APHA Executive Director Georges Benjamin, was organized as part of National Public Health Week. Sponsors of the call included APHA, American Lung Association, American Thoracic Society, American Heart Association, Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, Trust for America’s Health, and National Association of County and City Health Officials.