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Can I Get a Witness Who Cares About Kids' Health?

The hearing room on the 4th floor of the Dirksen Senate Office building was packed—so packed that some onlookers stood in the back of the room to see the action unfold. All had gathered earlier today for "Air Quality and Children's Health," a hearing before members of two subcommittees of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. Before a panel of senators sat five witnesses—two of them with the shameful purpose of arguing against air quality standards that protect children's health.

Tension crackled throughout the room when Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) grilled witness, Margo Thorning: "Is your advice for parents of children with asthma to just get a job?" He followed up with the observation that many children of employed parents still struggle with the effects of asthma.

Thorning had provoked Whitehouse's ire by arguing that health protections against air pollution are untimely and unnecessary. What we really need to do, she said, is focus on economic growth—a thinly veiled version of the polluter mantra that health protections against the pollution they generate cost too much and are unfair, unfair, unfair. Nevermind that the Office of Management of Budget, the Environmental Protection Agency and independent analysts have found this to be untrue.

Thorning was joined by Dr. Julie Goodman, an adjunct faculty member at the Harvard School of Public Health. Lest you think such credentials indicate a semblance of sense, know this: it came out during questioning from Sen. Whitehouse that Goodman is funded by the American Petroleum Institute—not exactly the vanguard of public health. Is that a conflict of interest I smell?

Fortunately, there were voices of reason on the panel. "Children may look like miniature adults, but they are not," said Dr. Dona Upson, a pulmonologist from New Mexico who was representing the American Lung Association and the American Thoracic Society. "They deserve special protection—their lungs are still developing."

Children are especially vulnerable to air pollution like soot and smog. Their lungs continue to grow long after they are born, as do the natural defenses of the body that fight off infection. As a result, children exposed to air pollution are more susceptible to respiratory infections than adults.

Patty Resnik, a registered respiratory therapist from Delaware, explained that asthma costs our society billions of dollars every year. Nearly 9 percent of children in the U.S. suffer from asthma—the most common cause of school absenteeism, she said. Because children's airways are smaller than adults, asthma attacks, which cause restriction of the airway, can be far more severe for a child.

Ultimately, Sen. Whitehouse wasn't the only sympathetic senator in the room. Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE) elicited explanations about how mercury impacts children—that it’s so toxic it damages the ability for children to learn and reach their fullest potential. And Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) shared a heartbreaking story about his sister never recovering from an asthma attack.

The health of our children should be one of this nation's fundamental priorities. When polluters and their mouthpieces like Thorning and Goodman decry public health protections, they repeatedly harp on the fact that industry has to spend money to clean up. What they frequently omit, however, is that the rest of us are spending a lot more money and even dying prematurely and will continue to do so if industry doesn't clean up.

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