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Scientists Say Obama’s Clean Power Plan Has Major Public Health Benefits

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The health benefits federal officials predict would result from implementing President Obama’s proposed Clean Power Plan —which calls for reducing carbon emissions from power plants by nearly one-third of the 2005 level by 2030 —are realistic, according to Jonathan Buonocore, a research associate at the Center For Health and the Global Environment at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and co-author of a study recently published in Nature Climate Change.

In an interview with Modern Healthcare, Buonocore said the standards could boost health in two main ways: First, by slowing climate change, and thereby reducing the number of extreme weather events like hurricanes, floods and heat waves, which can lead to problems like shortages or contamination of water and food supplies, heat stroke and deaths, as well as further spread of infectious diseases. Secondly, by boosting air quality, known as a “co-benefit,” there would be fewer premature deaths, heart attacks, asthma, and stroke.

“The nice thing about these co-benefits is (that) you get them immediately,” Buonocore told Modern Healthcare.

Power plants are the nation’s largest source of carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to climate change, but they also release other pollutants like sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter — precursors to smog (ozone) and soot (fine particulate matter).

The new plan, if adopted, promises to help reduce other climate-related public health issues, such as higher ozone levels, which can worsen respiratory problems like asthma, Buonocore told Wired. “Ozone is usually a problem in the summer,” Buonocore said. “With climate change you’re basically extending the ozone season.” Higher temperatures can also lengthen the pollen season and cause more severe allergies, while drought-induced wildfires release additional particulate matter into the air, further exacerbating respiratory conditions.

Federal officials say the Clean Power Plan by 2030 would prevent 1,500 to 3,600 premature deaths, 90,000 asthma attacks in children, 1,700 heart attacks, and 300,000 missed days of school and work.

However, the realization of these health benefits will depend on whether and how the Clean Power Plan is actually implemented. Some states have already said they will not comply with the plan. Ultimately, enforcement may come down to the next presidency. Not surprisingly, Republican presidential hopefuls have come out strongly against the new environmental standards, while Democratic candidates have promised to defend the plan if elected.

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