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What. A. Week. 

We’re only one week into Trump’s America and it’s beginning to feel like everything we hold dear is at stake, and, well, it sort of is. Case in point: California’s ability to decide what’s best for our own public health.

Wait… back up

Last Thursday, during Scott Pruitt’s (aka #PollutingPruitt) confirmation hearing to become head of the Environmental Protection Agency, he refused to commit to allow California to continue crafting its own air emissions standards. Hint: For nearly 50 years, California has maintained the right to set emissions standards stricter than federal standards. And, to add hypocrisy to insult, while #PollutingPruitt is all about state’s rights when it means dodging environmental standards, he doesn’t seem to feel the same when it strengthens environmental protection.

This sounds wonky AF.

Au contraire! This is a HUGE DEAL that affects all 40 million Californians. See, we have the right to regulate emissions from automobiles for good reason.

Okay, give me the background.

California has some of the most polluted air in the country - but a few decades ago it was much, much worse. It hurt, literally, to breath. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, Southern California had some of the dirtiest air in the world - we made Beijing look like a nice place for a picnic. It was so bad, one particular smog attack during World War II led some to suspect they were under a Japanese chemical attack. It was “nearly unbearable, gripping workers and residents with an eye-stinging, throat-scraping sensation.”

So what’d we do about it?

After decades of smog disrupting life in California and preventing schoolchildren from playing outside, researchers isolated the culprit: pollution from automobiles and industry.

(And, you’ll never guess what, the oil and auto industries, along with the Chamber of Commerce, denied, denied denied, despite the fact that there was no doubt among scientists - sound familiar?)

After decades of rallies and activism, California demanded the first anti-smog controls on cars. Then, in 1970, amendments to the Clean Air Act granted California the authority to go beyond federal standards in light of the state’s dramatic air pollution. The catch: the EPA had to approve any California regulations that exceed federal standards via a waiver. Other states are then given the option to adopt California’s rules or stick with the federal government’s.

(Side note: the Clean Air Act amendments were signed into law by President Nixon - a republican - proving this was not always a partisan issue.) 

Over the past 50 years, the EPA has granted California more than 100 waivers, which have led to some of the nation’s most important innovations to fight pollution. On only one occasion has the EPA denied California’s waiver - in 2008, during the Bush Administration, a waiver that was later passed under Obama.

Did this help public health?

BIGLY. Californians’ risk of developing cancer from toxic air pollution declined 76% in two decades thanks to our clean air standards.


So now what?

Good question. With Pruitt at the helm of the EPA, the future of our air and health is in jeopardy. We still have some of the worst air quality in the nation, but “worst” 2017-style actually isn’t anywhere near as bad as 1970s-animal-style. But with twice as many cars on the road today, the only thing between our lungs and that garbage is a waiver.

Fortunately, strong California leaders like Senate leader Kevin de Leon have pledged to defend our hard-won rights.

Watch this space.
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