Hanna Saltzman: Supreme Court’s limits on EPA threatens Utah children’s health

It has never been more urgent and important for local governments to step up as climate leaders.

(AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File) Steam billows from a coal-fired power plant Nov. 18, 2021, in Craig, Colo. The Supreme Court on Thursday, June 30, 2022, limited how the nation’s main anti-air pollution law can be used to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. By a 6-3 vote, with conservatives in the majority, the court said that the Clean Air Act does not give the Environmental Protection Agency broad authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants that contribute to global warming.

As a pediatric resident physician and the mother of an infant, I had been anxiously awaiting the Supreme Court’s recent decision on West Virginia vs. the Environmental Protection Agency. Despite being one of the most important environmental cases in history, this case didn’t receive nearly enough media attention before the verdict.

In a devastating blow to children’s health, the court ruled that, regardless of the Clean Air Act, the EPA does not have broad authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.

This decision harms children — not just in West Virginia, but across the country, including in Utah. As the state with the highest birthrate in the nation, children are front and center here. Utahns have already started to see how the warming of our planet is hurting the health of our children.

Let’s start with one of our most visible public health problems: air pollution. In a vicious cycle, air pollution worsens global warming, and then a hotter earth, in turn, worsens air pollution. While working in the pediatric emergency department on a particularly smoky day last summer, I saw child after child with asthma, struggling to breathe as they gripped the hands of their distraught parents.

Between winter smog and summer wildfires, it’s not surprising that Salt Lake and Utah Counties recently received an “F” in the American Lung Association’s air quality report card.

Air pollution can affect a child’s entire body throughout her entire development. In addition to damaging children’s lungs, it has also been associated with an increased risk for serious health problems including birth defects, problems with brain development, and childhood cancers.

Extreme heat is also dangerous, particularly for babies. There’s no question our summers are getting hotter: in Utah, eight of the 10 hottest years on record have occurred since 2012. Heat waves and air pollution both increase the risk for infant death, preterm birth, low birth weight, and many other infant and childhood health problems.

The current drought, which, despite the word, is unlikely to be temporary, is clearly worsened by warming temperatures. In addition to sparking wildfires, the drought threatens a risk of toxic dust storms if the Great Salt Lake continues to dry up, as The Tribune recently reported. Children all along the Wasatch Front may then be in danger of breathing harmful heavy metals including arsenic. With a growing population and shrinking lake, simply having enough safe water for our children to drink also may be in question.

Air pollution, summer heat and persistent drought are just some of the many ways climate change harms children’s health here in Utah. The West Virginia vs. EPA decision will make these issues much harder to address. By preventing the EPA from regulating greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, the ruling removes a key path towards addressing climate change. It also likely will lead to future cases that further curtail the EPA’s ability to do what President Nixon created it to do: ensure “clean air, clean water, [and] open spaces” for every American.

In other words, this verdict blocks the federal agency charged with protecting the environment from effectively addressing the most important environmental problem — and arguably the most important children’s health problem — of our time.

This is beyond distressing. But it also means that it has never been more urgent and important for local governments to step up as climate leaders. And for us all to work together to make that happen.

We need to focus on solutions that will improve the health of children in the Salt Lake Valley and our broader state. This looks like supporting the industries that will bring us toward a cleaner future, including wind and solar power, as well as electric vehicles. It looks like further boosting economic growth through projects to improve public transportation and create more climate-resilient cities. It looks like enhancing water conservation and doing everything possible to keep the Great Salt Lake wet. It looks like all of this, and so much more.

I chose to become a pediatrician because I believe that improving the health and wellbeing of children is critical for creating a vibrant, thriving future. I chose to become a parent because I believe that future is possible.

When it comes to addressing air pollution and climate change, improving our children’s health and creating a healthy future become one and the same.

Hanna Saltzman

Hanna Saltzman, M.D., is a pediatric resident physician in Salt Lake City.