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Thoughts on Gov. Christie, Asthma, and Elephants in the Room

Christie Becomes a Victim of His Own Policies

[Update: 7/31/11 – today’s Star Ledger finally covers the air pollution angle, but greatly downplays it, blaming primarily “heat and humidity” (the self serving Christie spin). The Ledger story also does not even mention global warming, which greatly exacerbates heat, humidity and pollution, and fails to connect the dots to Christie policy. Note to Star Ledger, report that the Governor is a victim of his own policies! – end update] 

Yesterday afternoon, the Star Ledger reported that Governor Christie was hospitalized for difficulty breathing. 

Today we learn it was the result of an asthma attack (see: Christie released from hospital after asthma attack).

Once again, our tabloid media reports only the most superficial and political aspects of the story, while missing the proverbial elephants in the room (no pun intended, despite the Governor’s morbid obesity).

As they say, the personal is political. 

In this case, there is a perverse direct connection between the Governor’s personal health crisis, and the “regulatory relief” policies he is implementing. (see also: Christie DEP Slashing Air Pollution Enforcement

Despite the golden opportunity to educate the public provided by the Governor’s misfortune, the media fails to report that NJ has the highest rate of asthma in the country.

Asthma is triggered by air pollution, specifically ground level ozone.

Global warming is increasing the number of bad air days when NJ fails to meet the ozone standard.

The entire state of NJ is not in compliance with public heath based federal ozone standards. Here is DEP analysis of the ozone risks:

“The Department estimates that attaining the Federal 1997 8-hour NAAQS for ozone in New Jersey would eliminate about 40,000 asthma attacks each year and substantially reduce hospital admissions and emergency room visits among children and adults with asthma and other respiratory diseases (NJDEP 2006 ozone report). As such, implementing the proposed RACT rules would not only yield greater air quality benefit, but also would save lives and money and provide better living conditions for the people of New Jersey, especially the susceptible populations. Based on an article in the April 2007 of Harvard Center for Risk Analysis’ newsletter “Risk in Perspective,” the Department estimates that ozone exposure results in increased deaths per year in New Jersey (“Relationship between Exposure and Mortality Risk,” Risk in Perspective, Vol. 15, Issue 2, p.1 (April 2007); available at http://www.hcra.havard.edu/perspective.html).

Additionally, other air pollutants, like fine particulates, trigger and worsen asthma attacks, leading to hospitalization and risks of death.

As I wrote, praising DEP’s adoption of a clean air rule:

Despite multi-billion record profits in the oil industry, these giant corporate polluters don’t want to spend money to reduce the death rate their products cause in NJ.

The public health stakes are huge – thus the inflammatory but accurate headline. But there really are lives at stake. Here’s why DEP is requiring that sulfur be reduced: (see page 18-20 of the DEP proposal)

The health effects associated with exposure to fine particles are significant, mainly due to the fact that particles of this size can easily reach into the deepest regions of the lungs.

Significant health effects associated with fine particles exposure include:
• Premature mortality;
• Aggravation of respiratory and cardiovascular disease;
• Decreased lung function and difficulty breathing
• Asthma attacks; and
• Serious cardiovascular problems, such as heart attacks and cardiac arrhythmia.

The USEPA estimated that attainment of the 1997 annual and daily fine particles standards nationally would prolong tens of thousands of lives each year and prevent hundreds of thousands of hospital admissions, doctor visits, absences from work and school, and respiratory illnesses in children. Individuals particularly sensitive to fine particles exposure include older adults, people with heart and lung disease, and children. The elderly have been shown to be particularly at risk for premature death from the effects of particulate matter. Health studies have shown that there is no clear threshold below which adverse effects are not experienced by at least certain segments of the population. Some individuals who are particularly sensitive to fine particles exposure may even be adversely affected by concentrations of fine particles below the revised 2006 annual and daily standards. (72 Fed. Reg. 20586-20587 (April 25, 2007), Clean Air Fine Particle Implementation Rule) The USEPA is currently reconsidering those standards based on recommendations of its Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC).

According to the most recent Federal and State estimates, 765,125 New Jersey residents have asthma. In 2004, asthma sufferers in New Jersey accounted for 15,679 hospitalizations, which represents approximately one out of every 50 hospitalizations. Of these asthma hospitalizations, 5,175, or about one-third, were children. There were 1,838 deaths due to asthma between 1989 and 2003 in New Jersey. The risk of death from asthma increases considerably with age, with the over-65 population having the highest rates. (see: Asthma in New Jersey Annual Update 2006. New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services, August 2006 (click on this for document)

SO2 causes a wide variety of health and environmental impacts because of the way it  reacts with other substances in the air. SO2 reacts with other chemicals in the air to form fine sulfate particles. When these are breathed, they gather in the lungs and are associated with increased respiratory symptoms and disease, difficulty in breathing, and premature death. Peak levels of SO2 in the air can cause temporary breathing difficulty for people with asthma who are active outdoors. Longer-term exposures to high levels of SO2 gas and particles cause respiratory illness and aggravate existing heart disease. (Sulfur Dioxide: Health and Environmental Impacts of SO2/Six Common Pollutants/Air & Radiation/USEPA. (click on this for document).

Increased ozone concentrations severely affect the quality of life for susceptible populations – children, the elderly, and asthmatics – and present health risks for everyone. Exposure to ozone for several hours at relatively low concentrations significantly reduces lung function and induces respiratory inflammation in normal, healthy people during exercise. This decrease in lung function is generally accompanied by symptoms such as chest pain, coughing, sneezing, and pulmonary congestion. (The Green Book Nonattainment Areas for Criteria Pollutants, United States Environmental Protection Agency, as updated August 17, 2007. Click on this for document)

NOx, as a precursor for both fine particles and ozone, will contribute to the health impacts associated with both fine particles and ozone. Ozone exposure can cause several health effects, including irritation of lungs. This can make the lungs more vulnerable to diseases such as pneumonia and bronchitis, increase incidents of asthma and susceptibility to respiratory infections, reduce lung function, reduce an individual’s ability to exercise and aggravate chronic lung diseases.

Attainment of ozone, fine particulate, hazardous air pollutant, and other public health based air quality standards will require a strong DEP and aggresssive enforcement of environmental regulations.

Yet Christie is slashing both! He’s become a victim of his own policies!

For details, see: “Big Oil Mounts Shameful Attack on Clean Air and Public Health”

The Governor needs to start listening to DEP scientists and abandon his attacks on environmental and public health protections.

As he now knows from personal experience, they are not “Red Tape”.

[Update: Just read the Bergen Record story – Predictably, the Governor tries to blame humidity and allergies. Either he intentionally avoided any links to air pollution, knowing that would expose a political vulnerability, or he’s in deep denial:

Christie uses an inhaler for asthma. He said his breathing problems were likely the result of humid weather and summer allergies.

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