Air quality is a significant and growing concern in New Mexico. Experts link exposure to air pollutants to many adverse health effects, including exacerbation of asthma symptoms, diminished lung function, birth deformities, cardiovascular disease and childhood cancer.
As many New Mexico families understand all too well, one of the most common health conditions caused or exacerbated by air pollution is asthma. Between 2000 and 2007, the number of adult New Mexicans suffering from asthma jumped 40%.
The problem is even worse in the regions of the state where oil and gas production and coal-fired power plants are concentrated. Lea County has the highest asthma rates in the state which are 5 times higher than the state average, and asthma rates among children in the oil, gas and power plant hubs of New Mexico are one-third higher than in Bernalillo County, where vehicle emissions are concentrated.
Children are affected by air pollution more than adults because their bodies are still developing and they breathe faster. Childhood asthma has become an epidemic in our state. Of asthma-sufferers in the oil patch of southeastern New Mexico, approximately 3 out of 5 children are hospitalized annually for their condition. This compares to less than 1 out of 5 in the rest of the state.
But poor air quality harms more than our health. It also hurts our pocketbooks. The health care costs of air pollution vary depending on the geographic area and study methodology (no known New Mexico-specific studies are available), but all of the numbers are staggering. Across the United States, more people die from air pollution each year than traffic accidents, and the mortality rate for air pollution equals that of breast cancer and prostate cancer combined.
Improving the quality of our air can save money and create jobs. For example, according to Charles J. Cicchetti, Ph.D., the former Deputy Director of the Energy and Environmental Policy Center at Harvard University, the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) new rule to reduce toxic emissions from the utility sector will result in:
- net annual benefits of between $52.5 and $139.5 billion (yes, billion!)
- net job increases of 115,520
- health care savings of $4.513 billion
The vast majority of other scientific studies yield remarkably similar conclusions: regulating air quality has been, and continues to be, great for our economy.
Example of action to improve air quality:
In 2008, New Energy Economy and more than a dozen other organizations filed a petition with New Mexico’s Environmental Improvement Board (EIB) to pass a science-based cap on carbon pollution. In 2011, after two years of public hearings, technical testimony and legal proceedings, the EIB passed a rule setting a reasonable cap and reduction plan for greenhouse gas emissions. An economic analysis of the rule demonstrated that the status quo would result in a loss of 5,500 jobs-years by 2020; conversely, compliance with the rule will create 17,500 jobs-years! Unfortunately, industry groups challenged the rule and the EIB itself later struck it down.
Example of action that fails to improve air quality:
In the small community of Mesquite, south of Las Cruces, residents complain of burning eyes, asthma, chronic respiratory infections, nosebleeds and severe chronic bronchitis. A fertilizer-blending facility sits in the heart of Mesquite, right across from the community’s elementary school. During the previous administration, the company operated without an air quality permit for years and, despite approximately half a million dollars in fines for air quality violations, the state does not have the authority to shut down the facility. For many years, the state legislature has failed to pass a bill that would authorize the state to deny or revoke permits for so-called ‘bad actors,’ polluters with a clear and consistent record of violating environmental laws.
- Respiratory Health & Air Pollution, Centers for Disease Control
- The Burden of Asthma in New Mexico, April 2009, New Mexico Department of Health
- High Child Asthma Rates in Southeastern New Mexico
- Why EPA’s Mercury and Air Toxics Rule is Good for the Economy and America’s Workforce, Charles J. Cicchetti, Ph.D.
Note: Dr. Cicchetti has retired as the Miller Chair of Government, Business and the Economy of the University of Southern California. He previously was Professor of Economics and Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and Deputy Director of the Energy and Environmental Policy Center at Harvard University.
- Economic Benefits of Air Pollution Regulation in the USA: an Integrated Approach, MIT
- Air Pollution Fatalities Now Exceed Traffic Fatalities, Earth Policy Institute
- Economic Impact Analysis of New Mexico’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions Rule, Synapse
- Helena Chemical Co. has not been a good neighbor, Jim Norton, Division Director, New Mexico Environment Department