Taking pollution to heart

February 04, 2007

Quick quiz: What's the connection between last week's gloomy confirmation from international scientists that the Earth's stable weather patterns are headed for upheaval and the grim news highlighted by first lady Laura Bush at Thursday's Red Dress dinner that heart disease is the leading cause of death for American women - killing more than all cancers combined?

Answer: Each of these calamities, the global and the personal, can at least be mitigated by conserving energy and developing cleaner fuels.

Carbon dioxide's culpability in global climate change is now virtually undisputed. The unfettered burning of coal and oil since the 1950s for electrical power and transportation has filled the atmosphere with so much CO2 and other heat-trapping greenhouse gases that the planet is well on its way to centuries of higher temperatures, rising seas and violent storms, said the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Meanwhile, the tiny particles of soot also produced by burning oil, coal and other carbon products are playing a major role in the soaring rate of heart disease among women. Particularly at risk, according to a recent study, are women living in urban areas. With its traffic back-ups and coal-burning power plants, Baltimore ranked 22nd among the nation's sootiest cities - ahead of New York and Washington, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Mrs. Bush advises women to protect their hearts through diet, exercise and regular blood-pressure and cholesterol screenings. Moving out of cities such as Baltimore might also help. But a broader and better solution would be to clean up the air here.

Maryland is off to a good start, thanks to last year's Healthy Air Act, which includes the state in a Northeastern coalition that has pledged a 10 percent reduction in CO2 emissions from power plants by 2018. A second initiative, to require Maryland to meet California's auto emission standards, potentially including CO2, has the support of Gov. Martin O'Malley and should be quickly enacted by the General Assembly.

These and other steps to reduce reliance on fossil fuels will improve the health of the Earth as well as that of its inhabitants. It may be too late to stop global warming, but not, perhaps, to cool it off a bit.

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