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Dr. Poune Saberi: “Fossil fuels are dead”

August 10, 2014

On July 30, 2014, Dr. Poune Saberi traveled from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C. to testify at a public hearing on the EPA Clean Power Plan. Others have traveled farther to testify at EPA hearings, like the retired coal miner who traveled 1,300 miles from Harlan County, Kentucky, to testify in Denver, Colorado, pleading, “We’re Dying, Literally Dying For You To Help Us.” Others earned headlines for testifying from a faith-based perspective: “At EPA Hearing, Religious Leaders Call Carbon Pollution ‘An Affront To God.’

Dr. Saberi’s quiet authority stems from her work as a doctor and public health researcher; it generated no headlines. But when a physician who has witnessed sudden death and the struggle for life connects that witnessing to the fight for our climate, the resulting testimony is powerful and cogent. Read on:

EPA Clean Power Plan Testimony

Pouné Saberi, MD, MPH

July 30, 2014

Washington, DC

There is a Dakota saying that goes like this: “ When you find yourself riding a dead horse, dismount.” (1)

My name is Dr. Poune Saberi and I am a physician in Occupational and Environmental Medicine and a faculty member at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. I am here to say: fossil fuels are dead and we must dismount.

The Clean Power Plan (2) is a key life-saving move and I want to thank EPA for their initiative. I want to tell you about a first encounter with a patient that I will never forget. The initial visit started out routine, but when I asked if she had any children, her eyes welled up and she began telling me the story of her 17 year old son destined for college with scholarship, raised as an only child by this single mother. One day she received a call that he had an asthma attack and was taken to the emergency room. This time the asthma attack proved to be fatal and she never even had a chance to speak to him before he stopped breathing.

Forty-four percent of all asthma hospitalizations are for children. (3)  I practiced primary care for ten years before specializing in Occupational and Environmental medicine. I have seen the wide spectrum of patients hurt by exposure to outdoor air pollution. Seeing the alarmingly rapid and shallow breathing of an infant is not an experience you would want to voluntarily take part in. It is heart breaking when the vulnerable among us unfairly take a large hit from our actions.

Unacceptable Sacrifices

At the other end of the spectrum are the workers in the fossil fuel industry. I live and work in Pennsylvania where methane gas development has exposed many of the workers to volatile organic compounds, silica sand and radioactive material. A 26-year-old worker died in southwestern Pennsylvania when a methane gas well exploded. This is why I am here today. When industry focuses on profits over health, it is up to us to raise our voices against these unacceptable sacrifices.

August 6, 2014: DEP Details Cause Of Fatal Greene Co. Gas Well Fire. Photo: Pittsburgh CBS Local

I commend EPA for introducing this rule. However, this is just an introduction – an introduction to a promising direction as a society if we all agree to make the efficiency proposal much more stringent and the focus on non-combustibles much more robust.

Here are the strong points of the Clean Power Plan:

  • The co-benefits. That means when CO2 is reduced many other air pollutants are also reduced, like SO2, NOx and Hg. These outdoor pollutants are considered carcinogenic. Therefore, when there are less of them, there is less lung cancer, less bladder cancer, less memory loss.
  • Less carbon dioxide means lower utility bills. That is always good for everyone’s pockets.
  • Lowering CO2 equals lowering green house gases in the atmosphere and addressing the impacts CO2 has on global heating. Less ocean acidification helps fisheries; less extreme weather patterns help agriculture and commerce. And lastly, mitigating climate change will have its own health benefits by reducing the ferocity of floods, tornadoes and hurricanes.

There are many things in our world today we cannot fix. This one we can.

Here is what I believe this rule has ignored:

  • Focusing on downstream CO2 emissions from power plants and ignoring upstream impacts of coal and gas production is like a doctor just treating the bruises without acknowledging the domestic violence happening at home. There is a high risk of health exposure and environmental hazards at each step of extraction, production and transport. We must consider the entire life cycle of energy production.
  • Non-combustion sources of energy production like solar, wind and geothermal will help the states reach the CO2 reductions faster and earlier with less GHG production. Switching coal power plants to natural gas or nuclear is like switching from one addictive drug to another. The problem has not been addressed. Natural gas and nuclear are not viable alternatives to coal.
  • Non-combustible energy production is a labor-intensive economy and creates many jobs. The occupational hazards are minimal and the sun and wind resources are not siphoned off like fossil fuel leading to boom bust cycles. Conversely, coal miners and oil and gas workers have some of the most dangerous jobs in the US. Switching away from these jobs to jobs that are much less hazardous, workers and laborers will benefit by staying healthy, as well as continue to be proud financial providers for themselves and their families.

 

In summary, we must phase out coal, not transition to natural gas or nuclear, and we must fully embrace non-carbon, non-combustible sources of energy.

 

I will end by pleading that this administration transition from being a world leader in pollution to being a world leader in energy solutions.

 

Thank you.

Pouné Saberi, MD, MPH

 

Notes:

1. Dakota people: The saying, “If you are riding a dead horse, dismount” is widely attributed by multiple sources both to the Dakota and to the Lakota people.  The word Dakota means “ally” in the Dakota language, and the Dakota also refer to themselves as Ikce Wicasas (“Free people”) and Dakota Oyate (“Dakota people”)[3]

2. EPA’s original document spelling out their Clean Power Plan:  http://www2.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2014-06/documents/20140602ria-clean-power-plan.pdf

3. “The Burden of Children’s Asthma: What Asthma Costs Nationally, Locally, and Personally” From pediatricasthma.org, downloaded  from http://www.pediatricasthma.org/about/asthma_burden

4. General source: Q&A: EPA Regulation of Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Existing Power Plants | Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, downloaded from http://www.c2es.org/federal/executive/epa/q-a-regulation-greenhouse-gases-existing-power

5. General source: Georgetown Climate Center Summary of the EPA’s Proposed Rule to Limit GHGs downloaded from http://www.georgetownclimate.org/

6. Retired Coal Miner To EPA: ‘We’re Dying, Literally Dying For You To Help Us’ downloaded from http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2014/07/31/3465941/health-concern-epa-hearings/

One Comment
  1. stevebremner2014 permalink
    August 13, 2014 11:28 am

    Thank you, Dr. Saberi, for speaking out so eloquently on behalf of “front line” doctors, of Pennsylvanians, and of humanity.

    A personal story about fossil fuels and dead horses: As a kid in London in the 1960’s I had recurring breathing problems. They said it would go away when my age hit double figures, and it did. But at the time it was hell, and I still wince in sympathy on hearing or seeing someone having trouble breathing. Pouné’s image of infants laboring for breath really hits home for me.

    My breathing issue hit rock bottom in 1962, at age of 6½, when a partially collapsed lung coincided with the last great London smog. The Children’s Hospital was three blocks away, straight line, same side of the street we’d lived on since forever … and Mum and I got lost! Let’s hear it for fossil fuels.

    Fast forward half a century, during which London recognizes fossil fuel smoke as a dead horse, and cleans up its act, its particulate atmospheric muck, and its blackened buildings…

    In 2012 I dedicated the Sunday flowers at the Ethical Humanist Society of Philadelphia “on the 50th anniversary of the last great London smog, in honor of all who actually listen to climate scientists.” Facetious? A tad. Sincere? Utterly.

    Yes, it can be done. And I hope that half a century hence, someone will be dedicating flowers, in an atmosphere free of non-particulate muck, in honor of those who actually listened to voices like Pouné’s, and who — if you can get environmental stuff through the House of Commons, you can get it through *any* legislature! — got things fixed.

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