Our health depends on cleaner air — clean fuels will help

by Gary S. Kaplan, MD, CEO, Virginia Mason Franciscan Health; and Nathan Schlicher, MD, JD, MBA, President, Washington State Medical Association

Over the past year, we have cared for patients, families, colleagues, and other essential workers serving on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic. We have witnessed the devastation of a global health crisis and seen the resilience that lives inside every one of us. As we slowly emerge from the worst of the pandemic, we understand following science saves lives and strong leadership can make all the difference.

COVID-19 is not the only global health crisis we must face. The World Health Organization has recognized climate change as the greatest global health threat of the 21st century, altering our planet with dire consequences for generations to come if we do not join together now and design a better future. Climate science is clear — we must reduce greenhouse emissions to protect planetary and human health.

The Washington State Medical Association represents physicians, medical residents, medical students, and physician assistants in numerous specialties and practice settings throughout the state. We know that climate change is a critical public health issue and recognize the important role of physicians in promoting policies that will lead to healthier patients and more sustainable communities.

Virginia Mason Franciscan Health is a new partnership, but we have a long history of focusing on climate, health, and equity to protect our patients from the worst impacts of climate change. That’s why we were founding members of the Washington Health Care Climate Alliance, a coalition of seven health systems representing 40 hospitals and more than 950 health clinics committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions inside and outside our operations in order to protect patient and community health.

Washington can no longer pretend to be immune to climate change. The wildfires of 2020 are our new normal. The Climate Impacts Group at University of Washington has found that our state will continue to warm, resulting in additional extreme heat days, reduced snowpack, sea-level rise, and increased wildfires. A recent study revealed fossil fuel air pollution is responsible for 1 in 5 deaths around the world, with the worst impacts in low-income countries and communities that are exposed to the most pollution because of where they live.

The good news is that we have the diagnosis and we know the solutions. Transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in Washington state. Reducing transportation pollution is crucial to ensuring better health. That is why we support HB 1091, which establishes a clean fuel standard to reduce the carbon intensity of transportation fuels.

Dirty transportation fuels release potent greenhouse gas emissions, as well as huge amounts of air pollution and toxins, including particulate matter, volatile organic compounds, and other harmful pollutants that are linked to asthma, cardiovascular disease, premature death, and cancers. In addition, multiple studies have confirmed that long-term exposure to air pollution increases the severity and the risk of death from COVID-19.

Diesel exhaust has been globally classified as a carcinogen since 2012, exposing millions of Washington workers, families, and frontline communities to dangerous health risks they may not even realize. We are already paying for dirty transportation fuels with our health and increased health care costs.

A clean fuel standard is one of the many tools we need to prevent unprecedented climate change and health consequences. We must follow the science and make the necessary changes to protect ourselves, our communities, and our state. As we have seen during the current pandemic, we are stronger as a community when we follow science and take bold actions to ensure a better future. Our health depends on it.

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Voices for Clean Fuels

We are health care professionals, faith leaders, elected officials and community advocates supporting a Clean Fuel Standard for Washington State.