The downtown Phoenix skyline is easier to see, Tuesday, April 7, 2020, as fewer motorists in Arizona are driving, following the state stay-at-home order due to the coronavirus, and it appears to be improving the air quality and decreasing the effects vehicle emissions have on the environment. Credit: Ross D. Franklin | AP

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Here we are in the middle of the worst public health crisis in our lifetimes, and what does the Trump administration do? It cuts back on mileage standards for passenger vehicles. What appalling, tragic timing.

There is a direct correlation between air pollution and human health. The gasoline-burning vehicles we drive are largely responsible for the pollutants that are so damaging to our lungs, hearts and brains. Lower gas mileage means we burn more gas, creating dangerous toxins in the form of fine particulate matter and noxious gases that create smog and ground level ozone.

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Air pollutants from internal combustion engines increase the risk for asthma, respiratory, and cardiovascular disease, and greatly increase the risk for dying of COVID-19. A new study from Harvard researchers shows that even a tiny increase in small particulate matter called PM2.5 increases COVID-19 deaths 20 times higher than baseline.

This is particularly worrisome for Maine, which has one of the highest rates of asthma in the country. Maine is called the tailpipe of the nation because pollutants blow here on prevailing winds. The health of the most vulnerable people in Maine stands to suffer as our nation’s air quality worsens under Trump. The American Lung Association estimates that there will be 10,000 more deaths from air pollution in the US by 2035 because of Trump’s mileage rollbacks — this on top of the death toll from COVID-19, which itself will be higher because of air pollution.

That’s why recent Environmental Protections Agency actions are so galling. Over 100 environmental protection regulations have already been cast aside by the Trump administration.

The fossil fuel industry has too much influence over this administration. The EPA, headed by Andrew Wheeler, a former coal industry lobbyist, released a memo in late March retroactive to March 13, stating it will not pursue penalties for noncompliance with monitoring and reporting of air or water pollutants from industrial sources during the COVID-19 pandemic.

This is a slippery slope. If no known environmental oopsies happen during the pandemic, we can imagine the industry saying: “See, we don’t need to test so often,” and getting their way from the EPA. But just as the lack of testing for COVID-19 makes it impossible to know how many people are infected, we might never know if pollutants were released into the air “accidently” because monitoring would not have happened.

Regulations exist for two reasons: Someone in a position of power or authority inflicted harm on an innocent person; and our governing systems did not trust the problem to self-correct.

In the medical world, we have complex regulations to abide by, like the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act and the Emergency Medical Treatment & Labor Act. It can be exhausting. But for every piece of paper you sign when you go to a physician’s office, some doctor somewhere did something that had terrible consequences for a patient. Now, magnify that analogy by 320 million vulnerable Americans at risk from politically influential pollution-generating industries with deep pockets, and you can see why we need a strong, independent, science-based EPA. We cannot trust industry or corporations to police themselves. Their drive for money is too powerful.

Our government isn’t going to protect the air you breathe even during this pandemic, so what can you do? Look at the pre- and during-pandemic photos of large cities around the world. Air pollution miraculously disappears when millions of people stop driving gas-powered cars.

COVID-19 shows us that clean air is essential to human survival. You have some power over air pollution in the atmosphere. Rid yourself of fossil fuels. As soon as you are able, choose a car that is least likely to pollute, like an all-electric vehicle. Big picture? Vote for leaders who are not in the pockets of the fossil fuel industry. Our lives depend on it.

Janis B. Petzel of Islesboro is a physician.