One Real Voice for Millions of “Hypothetical Lives”

Dan Dolan-Laughlin

Dan Dolan-Laughlin is being honored as a Champion of Change for his work on the front lines to protect public health in a changing climate.

Although I am not a scientist, nor a doctor, I am someone who nearly lost his life to Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, or COPD. I am also someone who received a double-lung transplant, and someone for whom air quality means the difference between life and death.

Lung disease almost killed me. I suffered from COPD, for decades. As the disease progressed, I could no longer work. My quality of life declined – slowly at first, then more rapidly as I approached end-stage. I required round-the-clock oxygen therapy to perform even basic functions. Eventually, I wound up in the hospital with end-stage COPD. My doctor told me something no one is ever prepared to hear—that I had only several days left to live without mechanical support. And yet, a miracle occurred. Through organ donation, I was given the gift of life and hope: a healthy pair of lungs.

Though my darkest days are now behind me, the risk of infection, lung damage, and emergency room visits lingers every day the air is bad. I must be vigilant. I wear a mask when I am outdoors in the summer. Many days, I don’t even go outside. To me, a bad air day is akin to a hurricane, tornado, or earthquake: the risk is simply too great.

While my story is unique, my situation is not.  I am not here simply to talk about my own battle for healthy air. I am here as an advocate for everyone with lung diseases. Asthma sufferers, COPD patients, and others rely on pollution controls to simply get through another day. Lung disease impacts people all over the country, young and old, poor and wealthy. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, more than 159 million Americans live in communities where the air quality is hazardous to their health. That’s more than half the population! Every single one of them deserves the right to breathe healthy air. In my home state of Illinois, more than 4 million people suffer from cardiovascular or lung disease. Like me, each one of these people is at risk for health complications when the air quality is bad. Climate change threatens to make these already alarming air quality hazards worse.

Climate change is the number one public health issue of our time.  Higher temperatures from climate change can enhance the conditions for ground level ozone – or smog - formation. Even with the steps that are in place to reduce smog, climate change is projected to make it more difficult to control unhealthy smog levels in the future in large parts of the United States. 

Climate change can actually reverse the gains made in reducing the pollutants that cause smog.  This means in the future we will need additional air pollution controls in order to reach the same level of ground level ozone .

Air pollution, including carbon pollution, also causes asthma attacks and congestive heart failure. It worsens chronic lung diseases like emphysema and bronchitis. For the elderly, people with bad health or those living in poverty, dirty air increases the likelihood of hospitalization and can even lead to premature death. And climate change has the potential to exacerbate the bad effects of other air pollutants!

Cleaner air will help people live healthier lives. The steps to get cleaner air are easier and cheaper than many people think. Last year, I testified at an Environmental Protection Agency hearing in support of strong standards to reduce carbon pollution from both new and existing power plants. When fully implemented, these standards will help people live healthier lives.

A single coal-fired power plant releases an average 3.7 million tons of carbon pollution. Just imagine the impact of our 580 existing coal-fired power plants on the next generation, especially on those who live with lung or heart disease.

Some people complain that cleaning up carbon pollution will cost too much or be a burden on the economy, but the steps to get cleaner air are easier and cheaper than many people think. In fact, from 1980 to 2011 air pollution decreased by 63 percent while our economy grew by 128 percent.

We’ve made a lot of progress, but there is obviously still work to be done. I am amazed that there is continued resistance to improving air quality. A few months ago, someone in Congress questioned the value of EPA regulations, stating the benefits of clean air are “often based on inflated estimates of hypothetical lives saved.”

Well, I am here to tell you that I am one of those “hypothetical” lives. I speak for the dozens of COPD patients I meet every week, the thousands who rely on the American Lung Association in Illinois for advice, information, and support, and the millions across the country who suffer with lung disease every day who feel the deck is stacked against them.

We are counting on this Administration, this Congress, and this country to join in the fight against climate change. Our lives depend on it.

Dan Dolan-Laughlin is a former Railroad Executive.

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