Published — December 13, 2015

Side benefit of climate accord: Better health in polluted communities

Fracking activity takes place near a rural home in Dewitt County, Texas. Lance Rosenfield

Areas besieged by smog and other toxic emissions could benefit from the pact approved Saturday


Saturday’s 196-nation climate pact is aimed at curbing greenhouse gas emissions, whose effects on the planet already are being seen. Another beneficiary, however, will be public health.

If, in fact, the accord marks a true shift away from dirty fossil fuels like coal and oil, people from South Texas to South Philadelphia should expect to live longer, higher-quality lives.

Start with areas of heavy oil and gas drilling, like the Eagle Ford Shale region south of San Antonio. Last year the Center for Public Integrity, along with InsideClimate News and The Weather Channel, reported in “Big Oil, Bad Air” that chemicals released into the air during hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, were making people sick as regulators did little or nothing. Longer term, there are worries about cancer, given that potent carcinogens such as benzene are being spewed into the atmosphere.

If oil production — currently in a funk because of low prices — tapers off over the long haul, residents of beleaguered places like Karnes County, Texas, should see their health improve.

Levels of lung-damaging ozone also may fall as coal-fired power plants, oil and gas operations and other industries scale back their carbon emissions. The Center’s “Danger in the Air” series showed how the problem — which, like climate change, has its own stable of “deniers” — afflicts people from rural Utah to Dallas.

Emissions of air toxics in places like Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and North Tonawanda, New York — communities profiled in the Center’s “Poisoned Places” series with NPR — may go down as well.

And acute hazards that threaten people in large sections of Philadelphia, Houston, Los Angeles and other cities may be phased out. The Center’s “Fueling Fears” collaboration with ABC News, showed how oil refineries’ use of a deadly chemical called hydrofluoric acid puts millions at risk.

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