Mary Stauble, Clean the Air for Kids Coordinator
Clean Air Carolina
With the 2016 general election only days away and the possibility of the United States electing its first female president, women across the country continue to be active participants in the political process by running for office, leading campaigns, and raising money. Women are also active at the polls showing up to vote in higher numbers than men.
Unfortunately, all of our hard work doesn’t translate into leadership in public policy making. Women are vastly underrepresented in Congress holding only 20% of the seats, and in the North Carolina legislature, even less at 16%. Thus, our voices in the policymaking arena on issues from protecting the environment to living wages are not being heard loud enough for us to be the changemakers we aim to be.
When it comes to protecting air quality in North Carolina, women should be especially concerned for two reasons. First, air pollution disproportionately impacts the health of women, children, and the elderly. Women are most often the primary caretakers for children and aging parents. Second, the gains we’ve made in protecting our air quality over the last few decades have been chiseled away and in some cases, even dismantled, by a state legislature controlled by those who value businesses interests over regulations designed to protect public health.
Medical research now shows that exposure to high levels of air pollution during pregnancy is more likely to result in premature birth and low birth weight, threatening the infant’s fragile lung development. In addition, the lungs of children growing up in areas with high levels of air pollution do not develop properly and lack the excess capacity used during exercise and other activities that require strong, healthy lungs. Finally, air pollution exacerbates asthma which affects 262,827 children in our state and is the leading cause of school absences causing parents to miss workdays and pay higher health care costs.
North Carolina’s dependence on burning coal to meet our need for electricity has caused mercury emissions to be deposited in our rivers, streams and lakes. Fish convert the mercury to methylmercury, a potent neurotoxin that can cause neurological problems in fetuses and children. Women of childbearing age, pregnant and nursing women, and children under 15 are advised by the NC Division of Public Health to limit their consumption of over two dozen varieties of freshwater and ocean fish because of high mercury levels.
As women consider who to vote for at the state level, we should keep in mind that North Carolina at one time had the most protective rules and regulations designed to reduce air pollution from coal plants and toxic industries. But all that has changed. In the last four years the anti-regulation legislature rolled back environmental protections including removing a large number of air quality monitors used to measure pollution and eliminating air permitting requirements for over 1200 facilities.
Finally, as we head to the polls let’s not forget the biggest environmental challenge of all caused by air pollution from burning fossil fuels—climate change. This is an issue that affects all North Carolinians but especially our children and grandchildren. What kind of world can they expect to live in 50 years from now? As eastern North Carolinians continue to clean up and rebuild their lives and communities in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew, it’s critical that our elected officials accept the urgency of climate change and pass appropriate policies that swiftly transition our state’s economy to one reliant on clean, renewable energy like wind and solar and prioritize funding for infrastructure improvements for those communities likely to bear the brunt of extreme weather events. Women can and must use our political voices to protect our health and the health of the planet.
Resource: Find out how your legislators voted on air quality and other environmental issues at the North Carolina League of Conservation Voters website www.nclcv.org.