By Mark Vossler, Jon Witte and Nancy Johnson / For The Herald
With each new year comes a clean slate; an opportunity to start again by resolving self-improvement, often focusing on our health.
Traditionally, after a season of indulgence, there are resolutions to “clean up our act” regarding diet and exercise. But did you know the gas stove you’ve used to bake those delights is more harmful to your health than the snickerdoodles you consumed?
Health is at the top of everyone’s mind during this challenging covid-19 pandemic. There has been a wide-ranging focus on public health as well as our own personal well-being. The response to this pandemic has been far-reaching and multi-faceted: scientific research, policy-making, education, communication, outreach to vulnerable communities. With vaccines FDA approved and starting to be administered we can begin to breathe a sigh of relief, but this endeavor will also take determined effort, effective organization, and commitment of resources both human and financial to vaccinate millions of Americans.
Playing out in parallel is the crisis of climate change, presenting challenges even greater than those we currently face with the covid-19 pandemic. A multi-faceted approach is needed here too.
The World Health Organization considers climate change to be the “greatest threat to global health in the 21st century.” It is responsible for the increase in wildfires and the visible, choking smoke that fills our local skies every summer. Climate change causes more frequent and severe heat waves; it warms our oceans creating conditions for more violent storms; it has been linked to the emergence of new infectious diseases including novel viruses such as covid-19. Additionally, the evidence is overwhelming that rapid climate change is human caused. The burning of dirty fossil fuels has resulted in a dangerous rise in levels of carbon dioxide and other air pollutants in our atmosphere. These pollutants not only exacerbate climate change, but pose direct and immediate negative impacts to human health. Years of research and clinical experience have shown that these pollutants are responsible for lung and heart disease, mental health stress, heat-related injury and other physical ailments.
While we see and feel the immediate effects of an acute deadly illness, we often overlook the more subtle effects that accumulate over time. Our fossil fuel use is a good example of this phenomenon. The very buildings we live and work in are the fastest-growing source of carbon pollution in Washington state. The stove in your kitchen and the heat in your home, if powered by gas or oil, creates invisible pollutants. Nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, fine particulate matter, ultra fine particles and formaldehyde are emitted into your “clean” indoor air making it anything but healthy. In fact the nitrogen dioxide levels indoors after one hour of cooking on a gas stove would be illegal if found outdoors. These pollutants are linked to multiple serious medical problems including acute and chronic lung diseases, cardiovascular disease and premature death, various neurologic conditions, lung and breast cancer, and type 2 diabetes. The incidence of asthma in children is 42 percent higher in homes that use gas stoves for cooking.
Efforts are underway to work toward all electric homes, schools, workplaces and commercial spaces. Gov. Jay Inslee recently announced wide-ranging climate priorities that include a state-wide effort to phase gas out of residential buildings, the first of its kind nationally. Cities and counties in Washington can join the movements of cities in other states like California to ensure new construction is all-electric. Some have already done this, including Bellingham, Seattle, Issaquah and Thurston County.
Washington is blessed with some of the cleanest and cheapest electricity in the nation, making 100 percent fossil-free electricity attractive to builders, homeowners and investors. Clean energy jobs will flourish as we make the transition from fossil fuel-powered construction to electric building standards. All-electric homes are less expensive to build upfront and there is no expensive need to pay for connections to gas pipeline infrastructure. All-electric appliances are readily available and popular, often coming with rebates for highly efficient models.
A resolution to make this year is to encourage the Washington state Legislature and your local decision makers to aggressively transition to all-electric buildings. Included in Inslee’s environmental priorities for this year’s legislative session is HB 1084, the first legislation in the U.S. to address fuel switching state-wide. Additionally, municipal governments across the state are beginning to follow the examples set by Bellingham, Seattle and Olympia to mandate all-electric new buildings.
The benefits are many, yet despite landmark efforts to remove fossil fuels from our state’s energy grid in 2019 and to update our emissions reductions goals to match the latest climate science in 2020, we are not on track to meet those goals. Just as we hope to stick to our personal resolutions this New Year, we must resolve to renew our focus on reducing carbon emissions to promote a healthier environment in 2021 and every year going forward.
Dr. Mark Vossler is a cardiologist practicing in Kirkland and serves as the president of Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility. Dr. Jonathan Witte is a retired rheumatologist from Everett. He is an active member of WPSR and other climate action groups. Nancy Johnson is a retired registered nurse from Edmonds currently working on climate and environmental justice issues with WPSR, Sno-Isle Sierra Club and other organizations.