Why do we accept asthma with our ‘natural’ gas?

Transitioning away from fossil fuels would mean children (and all of us) breathe easier

Take a Deep breath. And exhale. Most of us don’t think about breathing. But that is not the case for one in eight children in the Commonwealth who have asthma.

According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation, Boston and Springfield are in the top 20 so-called “asthma capitals” in the US. Asthma is one of the most common chronic illnesses among US children and costs families and society hundreds of thousands of dollars each year. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Air pollution, in the form of nitrogen oxides, particulate matter, and ozone are associated with the development of asthma and exacerbations of existing asthma. Particulate matter and nitrogen oxides are emitted every time we turn on our gas stoves or heat our homes with a gas boiler or furnace. When sunlight shines onto nitrogen oxides and mixes with other pollutants, it can form ground level ozone, a key component of smog.

In Massachusetts, just over half of homes and many commercial buildings use gas for heating, hot water, and cooking. Many more use oil or propane, which are also fossil fuels. A recent Harvard study found that burning fossil fuels in buildings cost the Commonwealth an estimated $8.4 billion in premature deaths in 2017 alone. Moreover, the researchers suggested that the cost of burning fossil fuels in buildings is likely an underestimate because it did not take into account the health costs arising from air pollution-related illnesses—like primary care visits, emergency room visits, or hospitalizations. Alternatives to burning fossil fuels are available and are now economically competitive with fossil fuels. We can transition off “natural” gas by retrofitting homes and commercial buildings to increase energy efficiency and installing solar panels on rooftops and over parking lots. Boston is the fourth windiest city in the United States, so we have rich offshore and onshore wind resources that are being developed. With improved storage capacity, solar and wind are increasingly dependable forms of energy. In addition, some utility gas companies in the Commonwealth have started pilot projects providing renewable energy from ground source heat pumps, highly energy efficient systems that use geothermal energy, or heat from the ground. Buildings can draw on this energy source year-round to provide both heating and cooling. In short, the problem is not a lack of solutions to the public health problems caused by burning gas; the challenge is encouraging widespread adoption of the solutions we have at hand.

Recently, the Department of Public Utilities tasked the gas utilities in Massachusetts with proposing a pathway for meeting Massachusetts greenhouse gas reduction goals. However, as the Massachusetts attorney general pointed out in testimony, the plan that the utilities authored did not prioritize climate concerns in their modeling, which relies heavily on continued dependence on the burning of fossil fuels in the form of biomethane, synthetic gas, and hydrogen.

Taxpayers cover more than half of the cost of hospitalizations from asthma through public insurance, and the families with an asthmatic child pay more than $3,000 a year in medical costs. Failing to include the externalized costs of air pollution on health and climate in the plan that was presented by industry to the DPU is an egregious oversight. We can no longer afford to ignore the health and climate impacts of fossil fuels on the residents of Massachusetts. We need utilities’ partnership in order to address asthma in Massachusetts and we need to find a way forward to deliver clean heat that does not involve continued dependence on health harming petrochemicals that leave us tethered to the past. There is a path available to utilities that will reduce air pollution and greenhouse gases and preserve jobs for utility employees: networked ground source heat pumps. Let’s choose clean heat so we can all breathe easier.

Brita Lundberg is chair of the board at Greater Boston Physicians for Social Responsibility. She is also chair of the Environmental and Occupational Health Committee at the Massachusetts Medical Society and an active member of Climate Code Blue, a physician-led advocacy group dedicated to raising public awareness around the health effects of climate change. Carlos A. Camargo, Jr., is the Conn Chair in Emergency Medicine at the Massachusetts General Hospital Department of Emergency Medicine and is known internationally for his work in respiratory and allergy emergencies. He is a professor of emergency medicine and medicine at Harvard Medical School and professor of epidemiology at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Originally published in Commonwealth Magazine on June 13, 2022.

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