An Asthma Epidemic and a Climate Crisis

A few days after our son was born he caught a cold.  His nose was totally stuffed up, and he was wheezing.  I remember sitting anxiously hunched over his bassinet watching him sleep, when I thought he stopped breathing for a second.  I picked him up more abrubtly than I meant to, and, of course, woke him up in the process.  He started wailing.  And that was the second time in my life that tears of relief slipped out of the corners of my eyes at the sound of my baby crying.


When I called the pediatrician and told her about this (my third call that day), she told me that if he was breathing and not turning blue, not to worry, and in fact said that periodic breathing was not unusual in infants.  Periodic breathing sounded like a very bad thing to us, though, so my husband and I decided we would be extra vigilant.  We would take turns watching him sleep until he was breathing easily.


What we lived through that couple days is pretty normal in the first few days of a baby’s life.  And yet, I still remember vividly the total panic of thinking that our child couldn’t breathe for a second.  That memory gives me a lot of empathy and deep respect for the parents of kids suffering from asthma.    Stories like Gloria Pan’s are representative of what hundreds of thousands of parents of kids with asthma go through.


It’s especially bad during these bad air quality days during heatwaves.


It’s time for us all to take a stand for these kids.  We need to be extra vigilant together to make sure that all kids have the chance to breathe easily.  The first step is the know the facts, and they are staggering.


First, asthma strikes 1 out of 10 school children and is the number one illness that causes kids to miss school in the US.  Children are at greatest health risk from air pollution because they are more likely to be active outdoors and their lungs are still developing.


And second, despite the asthma epidemic, over 127 million people– 41% of the nation– still suffers pollution levels that are too often dangerous to breath.


Doctors, nurses, and scientists tell us that carbon pollution from dirty energy is dangerous for children because it makes smog pollution worse, which triggers asthma attacks and permanently damages and reduces the function of children’s lungs.  The heatwaves that are increasing in frequency and severity in the context of climate change, are also terrible for our kids’  lungs. Poor air quality days affect the most vulnerable populations the most– kids and the elderly.


And yet, the big power companies and their lobbyists and supporters have spent tens of millions of dollars to try to block clean air standards, cap and trade, carbon taxes, or any other policy that would reduce their pollution levels and save thousands of lives. They spend major resources exaggerating the costs of policies that reduce pollution – but they don’t stop to consider that the health benefits to children and seniors far outweighs their inflated costs projections.  Even if we just consider dollars, and ignore the suffering, the National Academy of Sciences found that the health costs of all air pollutants from coal fired power plants is $62 billion annually.  That’s $62 billion dollars that we could save at the same time that we make it easier for kids to breathe.


Unfortunately, there are currently NO limits on industrial carbon pollution coming from sources like power plants or planes in the US. Power plants and planes can put as much carbon pollution in the atmosphere as they want.


Luckily, the first of these policies has been put forward by the EPA.  THe new clean air standards for industrial carbon pollution from power plants will make important progress in protecting the health of our kids.




Climate change policies don’t pass easily, though, and they definitely won’t survive without constant vigilance.


Consider spending 10 minutes to show your support for families affected by asthma.


Write or call your members of Congress and tell them to support EPA’s efforts to reduce carbon pollution – and to do something about it in Congress as well.


Click this link to ask your Senator to stop attacking Europe’s laws aimed at reducing carbon pollution from planes.


Tell your mayor to prepare for climate change locally, with local solutions that can reduce the impact of heatwaves and poor air quality days.


Help our country take the first step towards solving two problems at once– the asthma epidemic and the climate crisis.

About Keya Chatterjee

Keya Chatterjee is a Climate Change and Environment expert, and Director for International Climate Policy at World Wildlife Fund. Her work focuses on the environmental crisis facing the planet, and what policies and measures should be taken to ameliorate the most catastrophic impacts of climate change. Keya’s commentary on climate change policy and sustainability issues has been quoted in dozens of media outlets including USA Today, CNN, and NBC Nightly News. Keya resides in Washington, DC with her husband Andrew and her son Siddharth. She enjoys practicing yoga, biking, and spending time with her friends and family. She is working on a book about how to have a baby without raising your carbon footprint to be published in 2013 by Ig Publishing. Keep up with Keya’s writing on the nexus of climate change activism and motherhood at


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