Recently, WVFC received a letter from longtime WVFC friend and contributor Dominique Browning, with news of her recently formed organization, Moms Clean Air Force. She wrote:

Although the Clean Air Act has done so much to clean pollution from our skies over the last forty years, there is still a great deal of work to be done. Now, emissions tend to be invisible. But they are toxic. Scientists and doctors have identified the connections between air pollution and damage to our hearts, lungs, and brains. There is even developing research on air pollution and breast cancer. Mercury, emitted from coal-fired power plants, is a potent neurotoxin, and it affects the developing brains of fetuses, infants, and toddlers.

Moms Clean Air Force is bringing new voices into the fight against air pollution—and a new force: mother love. I would even add: grandmother love! There are some things money cannot buy: clean air, clean water. We have to become engaged, noisy citizens.

Inspired by Dominique’s engagement with this vital issue, we asked WVFC’s own Diane Vacca to join her in a discussion about Moms Clean Air Force. Diane herself is keenly interested in environmental concerns, as her coverage of  the 2010 BP oil disaster attests, and the resulting conversation was lively, far-ranging, and thought-provoking. With the current controversy (and a New York Times editorialover the pending Clean Air Act provision about mercury pollution, it couldn’t be more timely.  —Ed.

DV: You’ve been concerned about environmental problems for a long time. What brought about this new level of engagement? What changed?

DB: What changed was my ability to engage, to express those concerns.  At House & Garden [which Browning edited through 2007], we hired [environmentalists] Bill McKibben and his wife, Sue Halpern, to write a column about making their house sustainable. In the last 15 years I’ve been reading a lot about global warming, which is my obsession. I think it is the biggest problem facing humankind.

But we have to think of new ways to communicate the problem, ways that reach beyond the polarized debate, and ways that connect it to tangible effects. I see global warming as an air pollution problem. But quite apart from climate change, air pollution has a direct, terrible impact on our health. Children and older people are much more vulnerable to it.

Why focus specifically on clean air?  Why not clean oceans, for example?

The worst thing happening to oceans today is acidification. We have actually altered the chemistry of those vast waters—and we are causing die-off of coral reefs, with unimaginable consequences to ocean and air systems. But guess what? That’s happened because of air pollution. Air pollution is at the heart of our biggest environmental problems.

Mercury is emitted from coal-fired power plants, cement kilns, and other industrial sources, and it rains down into water, converts into methylmercury, and is ingested up the food chain, bio-magnifying and bio-accumulating as it rises. We eat contaminated fish, and we become poisoned.

I didn’t realize that mercury is in the air.

Yes. And there’s much more mercury in the fish now than there ever used to be. For humans, mercury contamination comes mainly from fish. And now scientists are finding mercury in some rice crops. Furthermore, mercury drifts across the globe. We are measuring mercury in the air over the U.S. from China! Chinese air pollution is an enormous problem. And Chinese citizens are beginning to demand that government regulate pollution because they are suffering catastrophic effects.

It is fetuses, infants and toddlers who are the most affected by neurotoxins, because their brains are still developing.

You were the longtime editor of  House & Garden, and you published your latest book, Slow Love less than two years ago. How did you come to Moms Clean Air Force? Was there any particular event or experience that motivated you to start to do something?

That’s a really good question. I think there was, and it goes back to what you said about oceans.

Before I started doing this, I was writing a column for the website of the Environmental Defense Fund called “Personal Nature.” They wanted somebody who was not a scientist to write about their work in regular, accessible, everyday language.

So I started talking to the Oceans team at EDF, and I began to learn about acidification. Now, I am a huge ocean-lover, and a swimmer. When I began to understand that humankind is actually able to change ocean chemistry—that’s like emptying the ocean with a teaspoon—it’s inconceivable. It’s still almost too much for me to wrap my mind around.

So it’s a combination of that, and my children growing up and leaving home. But I’m still their mom, and I’ve been thinking about their children—hopefully, some day—thinking, what kind of world are we leaving behind. What have I done as their mom to try to make that better? How can I model the importance of citizenship—of participating in our democracy—to my grown children?

Tell us how you and your co-founders started Moms Clean Air Force.

We launched our website at the end of August. We started brainstorming and marshaling resources probably a year earlier. The site is evolving as we go. We have bloggers writing about pollution so that we can help educate and inspire others to understand why this is such an important issue. And we want to help women take political action to make their important voices heard.

Who are the moms, exactly? 

As I wrote recently in Time magazine, many of us are what I call The Legacy Moms, in our 50s and 60s. And those ranks are growing—between 2000 and 2010, the 45-to-65-year-old population grew 31.5%. We are also reaching young, pregnant women who are suddenly focused on why, exactly, they aren’t supposed to eat certain kinds of tuna—and what they can do to protect the new life they are bringing into the world.

The idea of grandchildren is definitely what’s motivating me—the thought of making the world cleaner and brighter for the new little ones coming into our lives. There’s a lot we didn’t know about the effects of air pollution when we were raising our own babies. Now we know—science has shown the toxicity of invisible emissions. So now we have a moral responsibility to clean the air.

Do you think we’ve reached a tipping point? Will we be able to reverse or even halt the galloping contamination of our air and water?

I am hopeful that we can change the way we use resources. I’m hopeful that we can clean up our mess. Part of that is that one has to just decide to be hopeful, because the alternative is paralyzing, depressing, hopeless. And part of it is that if you pull back and take a 50-year picture, you can see how much improvement has been made (and not). You can see that when the country decided to start cleaning up pollution emissions, they were able to make a serious impact. And when China decides to do this, they will make a serious impact. So it can be done.

That’s why we need regulations. It’s more expensive for companies to put those scrubbers and filters on [to reduce the toxic emissions of coal-fired plants], so they’re not going to do it voluntarily, out of the goodness of their hearts. That’s why we need really strong—and I should emphasize, job-creating—government regulation. What New York and L.A. air looked like before EPA and the Clean Air Act is a perfect example.

What do you think is the best way to resist the potential crippling of the EPA and gutting of laws like the Clean Air Act?

It’s a horrifying thought, and that’s why every right-thinking person has to get out and vote to protect clean air. Make noise. Tell Washington you want strong pollution regulations.

We are reaching out and trying to influence Republican voters as well as Democrats. I don’t think we have done a very great job as environmentalists in communicating what’s what—in fighting the massive, fossil-fuel-funded disinformation campaign.

We have just made an alliance with a group called Republicans for Environmental Protection. The president and the board chair will be joining our Leadership Circle.

What is the immediate goal of Moms Clean Air Force? Is it to advocate for stronger regulations so that air pollution will be reduced in the future? Or to target the current polluters directly?

We are focused on political outcomes around clean air legislation. We are using all the tools at our disposal—letter-writing, petitioning, phoning, Twittering, office visits—to let our political representatives know that moms expect them to clean the poisons out of our air. We want politicians to hear the voices of thousands of moms, and to know that we care about our children’s health—and our grandchildren’s.

We want to tell Washington: Listen to your mothers!