Opinion: Stricter EV standards a health imperative for Calif.

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The following commentary was written by Johnny A. Negusse, MD, FACEP, PharmD, a board-certified emergency room physician at Dignity Health Community Hospital in San Bernardino, California. Please see our comment policy for more information.


No one should ever have to breathe toxic air, but this is the daily reality in California, where 98% of our residents live in counties with poor air quality. Nine of our cities rank among the top 25 most polluted in the US, according to a new report from the American Lung Association.

This is a particularly serious problem in San Bernardino County, where I live and work as an emergency room physician and where we have one of the highest rates of asthma in the state, especially among children. The county receives an “F” grade from the Lung Association for high levels of ozone and particulate matter.

Cars and trucks are the biggest source of this lung-damaging pollution, but tailpipe emissions are not the only factor. This climate pollution also leads to more extreme wildfires and longer fire seasons, meaning more smoke and soot damage our lungs.

In my work, I see too many people chronically exposed to hazardous air. Some need breathing tubes inserted to keep their airways open. Some have cancer and I have the difficult task of breaking this news to them or their families. I see our vulnerable as the most vulnerable. In those moments, I am reminded of a devastating but crucial fact: these diseases and deaths are preventable.

Dangerous air pollution and the worst impacts of the climate crisis are disproportionately hitting communities of color and low-income communities. This is a crisis of our own making, and marginalized communities are bearing the heaviest burden.

We have allowed the systemic marginalization of these families to continue for too long. I no longer feel comfortable simply addressing the symptoms of our unfair and unjust society. That’s why I’m committed to making positive changes that produce real results for my community.

That’s why my healthcare system, CommonSpirit Health, is also taking action to achieve net-zero emissions by 2040. We must advance social justice in the communities we serve and advocate for policies that address inequalities that harm our health.

Right now, California has two options for eliminating car and truck pollution. We must not let these opportunities pass us by. We must act quickly and boldly to bring cleaner vehicles onto our roads, and in the fairest way possible.

First, the California Air Resources Board (ARB) must pass an Advanced Clean Cars program that will push automakers to sell more electric cars in our state. If we don’t set strict enough standards, we risk leaving hundreds of thousands of polluting vehicles on the road for decades to come. For the families most affected by the ravages of air pollution, we need to deliver eco-friendly electric cars to their communities. We will do this by strengthening California’s standard to achieve 75% electric car sales by 2030 and adding mandatory equity rules that guarantee vulnerable communities will benefit from these cleaner technologies.

ARB is also working on electric truck standards, which are particularly important for improving health in the San Bernardino area. Warehouses have proliferated throughout the Inland Empire in recent years. Thousands of diesel trucks cruising our freeways and local roads have made the air in residential areas unsafe, turning them into what doctors call “diesel dead zones.” We need a sales target of 100% electric trucks by 2036 to relieve these communities.

Recent research from the American Lung Association shows that the transition to zero-emission vehicles in California will save $169 billion in healthcare costs, prevent 15,300 deaths and 440,000 asthma attacks, and avoid 2,160,000 lost workdays. These are enormous benefits for our health and our economy.

These policies are critical to our state, and we are far from alone in supporting the transition to clean vehicles. In fact, CommonSpirit Health was among dozens of companies and institutions that signed a series of letters to ARB demanding adoption of the two standards.

Everyone deserves to live a healthy, long life, but air pollution is tragically shortening life in communities that are already suffering. Electrifying our cars and trucks as quickly as possible will go a long way toward reducing preventable deaths. Our state regulators need to act this year to put us on a faster and fairer path toward that goal.

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