President Obama's "Clean Power Plan" is intended to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, but it would also reduce harmful soot and smog, says Douglas Dockery, a department chairman at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that when implemented, the plan would prevent 3,600 premature deaths a year. In addition, the agency said, it would prevent 1,700 heart attacks, 90,000 asthma attacks and 300,000 missed days of work or school a year.
"It's not about the polar bears," said Dockery. Burning coal "is affecting people living around power plants and downwind of power plants right now."
Last week, President Donald Trump signed an executive order to review and possibly eliminate the EPA's plan
to cut power plants' greenhouse gas emissions. The order rescinded previous analysis on the plan's benefits. The EPA had concluded that for every dollar businesses spent on the regulation, American families would save up to four dollars in health benefits.
When asked about the health consequences of doing away with the Clean Power Plan on Fox News Sunday
, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt ducked the question and focused on how the plan would cost jobs. He argued
the plan was bureaucratic overreach.
"As much as we want to see progress made with clean air and clean water, with an understanding that we can also grow jobs, we have to do so within the framework of what Congress has passed," said Pruitt on the show.
The U.S. Supreme Court put the Clean Power Plan on hold pending judicial review
. It was set to reduce greenhouse emissions up to 32% by 2030.
Fossil fuels from power plants generate particulate matter, tiny particles that are highly toxic
for people who inhale it.
High levels of air pollution are linked to lung cancer, cardiovascular disease, and chronic-obstructive-pulmonary disease, according to Dockery. He said there has also been evidence of problems with cognitive development in children, connections to autism and cognitive decline in adults.
Dockery coauthored a study in 1993 that was the first to show a clear link between air pollution and premature death. Researchers followed residents of six cities near coal-fired power plants for 15 years. Residents of Steubenville, Ohio — the city with the dirtiest air then — were 26 percent more likely to die prematurely than were citizens of Portage, Wisconsin, the city with the cleanest air in the study. On average, people breathing dirtier air have their lives cut short by two to three years.
A recent study by Harvard scientists showed that people over age 65 and living in low-income communities were most vulnerable to air pollution and are dying prematurely even under current air-pollution standards.
"People with chronic diseases or who have less reserve capacities to deal with environmental insults than others, like the elderly, those people die from air pollution," said Dockery.
Studies by Dockery's group and others became the foundation for regulations under the Clean Air Act. The EPA estimates that in 2010 alone, the cumulative rules under the act prevented 160,000 deaths, 54,000 cases of chronic bronchitis, 230 infant deaths, 130,000 cases of heart diseases and 86,000 emergency room visits. The agency predicted the act could prevent 230,000 deaths in 2020.
"This country is doing far better than most across the globe," said Pruitt on Sunday, arguing there had been a lot of advancement in reducing air pollution.
Even so, Dockery said power plants remain a major source of air pollutants that continue to cause health problems.
CNN reached out to the EPA for a comment and is still waiting for a response.