Congress should allow U.S. EPA to proceed with plans to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, a coalition of public health groups said yesterday.

"The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is responsible for protecting the public's health from climate change, and we urge you to fully support the EPA in fulfilling its responsibilities," reads a letter the coalition sent yesterday to Congress and the White House. "We also urge opposition to any efforts to weaken, delay or block the EPA from protecting the public's health from these risks."

Eighteen national public health organizations signed the letter, along with 66 state-level groups and public health experts in 36 states.

Republicans and some Democrats, including Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), have sought to block or delay EPA climate regulations set to take effect on Jan. 2, 2011. Industry groups and a handful of states also oppose the EPA rules, which would affect factories, power plants, refineries and other large industrial sources of heat-trapping emissions.

"I think that the pushback is, 'This is not really what we in Congress had intended when we wrote the Clean Air Act,'" said Jerome Paulson, a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics' Council on Environmental Health and a physician at Children's National Medical center in Washington, D.C.

But the pediatrician said he rejects that logic.

Children, elderly and poor at most risk
"I think that my response to that is, the Clean Air Act actually does cover this," Paulson said. "The Supreme Court has said that the Clean Air Act does cover this and that the EPA needs to respond. ... Every moment that we wait to start to get a better handle on the situation delays any mitigation."

Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, said it "just makes good common sense" to regulate carbon dioxide emissions, calling climate change "one of the greatest public health challenges of our time."

Benjamin and others who signed the letter said they believe climate change's health effects will be far-reaching, citing a recent federal report that concludes climate change will have "direct health impacts."

Rising temperatures will exacerbate air pollution and air quality concerns, increasing the incidence of respiratory and cardiac illnesses, the report predicts. Climate change is also expected to alter the frequency of extreme weather events like droughts and floods, alter the distribution of infectious diseases and increase the risk of food and water shortages.

The world's most vulnerable groups, including children, the elderly and the poor, are expected to suffer the most from climate-related disease, experts said yesterday.

"Climate change makes air pollution worse, and therefore, more children will have bronchitis and pneumonia," said Paulson, discussing one potential health impact of rising temperatures. "More children will visit hospitals and be admitted to hospitals because of asthma. Air pollution permanently injures the lungs of children and causes asthma in children."

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500