As our state legislators wrestle with difficult budget decisions, I urge them to maintain the core environmental protection programs that ensure we have clean water to drink, unpolluted air to breathe, and that our toxic sites are cleaned up. These programs are critical to the health of all Washingtonians, especially vulnerable children and the elderly.
As a family physician for more than 30 years, I’ve seen first-hand the impacts that pollution can have on public health. Maintaining core protections for our environment is absolutely crucial for the health and safety of families throughout our state. More personally, I’m a grandfather to two wonderful little girls who live here in Washington. I want them to be able to live, breathe, and play without worrying what toxins might be harming their health.
Two simple examples, our air and water, illustrate for me the deep connections between environmental protections and human health. Studies clearly link air pollution to increased illness, hospitalization, and death from lung diseases, heart problems, and cancer. Our state air quality program is an essential part of ensuring clean air for all of us to breathe.
We’re already facing problems with air quality. Tacoma has been identified as one of the 31 most-polluted places in the country and is out of compliance with federal air quality laws. Further cuts to air quality programs would make improvement efforts even more challenging and risk the health and safety of kids, those suffering from asthma and other lung diseases, and the elderly across Washington.
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The state Department of Ecology estimates the costs of illness and hospitalization relating to air pollution to be almost $190 million each year. Cutting essential environmental programs means we’ll be facing larger health care costs down the road.
This is also true for programs that ensure water quality and safety. Lake Whatcom, which supplies the drinking water for the City of Bellingham, has unsafe levels of mercury, phosphorus, and even human and animal waste. We need to be working to reverse this situation, not reducing funding for programs that would help clean it up.
Another situation which concerns me is the likelihood of Hanford’s inadequately housed nuclear waste (known to contaminate the water table) reaching the Columbia River, a major source of fishing and drinking water for many. Keeping our waters safe is essential to our state’s health.
Perhaps even more alarming are cuts to the state’s toxic cleanup funds that pose serious public health risks. There are almost 11,000 sites in Washington contaminated with toxic chemicals, heavy metals, oil, gasoline and other pollutants. Over the past few years, more than $250 million has been taken from the dedicated toxic cleanup fund and transferred to the general fund. This year, the supplemental budgets swept another $37 million to the general fund.
These cuts mean increased risk of toxic chemical contamination to the fish and shellfish that we eat. It also means more health hazards for children playing outside near these thousands of sites. Just dropping a toy, picking it up, and putting it in his or her mouth can put a child at risk for ingesting contaminated soil and dust.
This is not some distant problem. This is happening today.
I’ve lived in Washington most of my adult life, serving my medical internship in Spokane and practicing as a physician in Olympia. I love living here, and I love having my grandchildren near. I want them to grow up with clean air to breathe and clean water to drink, uncontaminated by toxic pollutants. It’s a chance they and all kids across Washington deserve. It’s something we all deserve.
Further cuts to funding for environmental monitoring and renovation of pollution problems will adversely affect every individual in the state.
Dr. Ed Laclergue is a retired family physician who practiced in Olympia for more than 32 years. He can be reached at 360-352-0760.