This past year has been a challenging one to say the least. People all around the world have made significant sacrifices in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Connecticut communities and families lost over 8,200 of our loved ones and over the past 16 months, Health inequities were exacerbated and illuminated across the country.
In fact, the public health crises of both systemic racism and COVID-19 have brought to the forefront many issues we have known to be true for decades, but which we can no longer ignore. As a medical professional, I have seen how communities of color are disproportionately impacted by public health stressors like COVID-19 and air pollution, and as a pulmonologist, I know there is truth in the American Lung Association tagline: “When you can’t breathe, nothing else matters.”
For years, we have seen how air pollution negatively impacts Connecticut residents. The Lung Association’s 22nd annual “State of the Air” report found that in Connecticut, six of our eight counties get a failing grade for levels of unhealthy ozone pollution. This puts a majority of people in the state at risk, however some residents like children, seniors, and people with lung disease are disproportionately vulnerable.
Exposure to air pollution – like ozone and particle pollution – causes a number of health ailments including asthma, heart attacks, increased respiratory, and cardiovascular harm, and can even lead to premature death. Rising temperatures from climate change make it harder to reduce ozone and in Connecticut we have some of the worst ozone levels in the Eastern half of the country.
Part of that can be attributed to the transportation sector in Connecticut, which contributes a significant share of pollution as well as greenhouse gas emissions that drive our climate crisis. Lower income communities and communities of color often face a disproportionate burden of exposure and poor health outcomes due to transportation pollution. We simply cannot ensure clean air and a livable climate for all Americans without addressing transportation pollution.
The Transportation and Climate Initiative Program (TCI-P) would do just that. In December 2020, Gov. Ned Lamont signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) along with jurisdictional leaders from Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Washington, D.C authorizing Connecticut to work on implementation of TCI, which would address transportation pollution not just for Connecticut, but for our entire region. As it now awaits legislative approval, the plan has gained strong support from a variety of allies including many non-governmental organizations, business leaders, and elected officials
This broad base of support reflects the simple truth that the Transportation and Climate Initiative Program can improve the health of Connecticut’s residents. Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health estimate that once fully implemented TCI-P would avoid over 300 deaths per year and prevent thousands of children from having asthma-related problems.
This program would also invest in the communities most impacted by air pollution. The commitments outlined within TCI-P to invest proceeds from this program into communities that have disproportionately shouldered the burdens of air pollution. This is critical for ensuring health equity. The language specifically calls for a minimum of 50% of TCI auction revenue to be reinvested in communities overburdened by transportation pollution and underserved by the transportation system. It also authorizes CT DEEP to establish an Equity and Environmental Justice Advisory Board to guide the investments and ensure they have the most meaningful impact possible.
This is a necessary step to ensure that the input of those most impacted by pollution, as well as those who need more reliable transit service to commute from work or school are included in any planning and implementation.
In a clinical setting it is my responsibility to treat a patient with the disease and help the individual to realize their health goals. However, as a resident and constituent of Connecticut, I recognize the significant ways that policy change can impact our health. Environment and health organizations have so many aligned priorities. A healthy environment helps us to move toward improved public and individual health. Climate change is a very real threat on both of those fronts, and TCI-P will go a long way to correct our course on the changing climate and to protect public health.
Everyone deserves to breathe clean air. I call on the state legislature to codify TCI-P into law as well as encourage all of our neighbors to participate in this program as well so that we can fully realize the significant health benefits of cleaner transportation.
Dr. David G. Hill, of the Waterbury Pulmonary Associates, is a member of the Lung Association’s National Board of Directors and is the immediate past chair of the Northeast Regional Board of the American Lung Association.
This op-ed is not sponsored but was submitted in conjunction with an advertising campaign from SaveTheSound.org.
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