Asthma: Gasping at Straws

January 01, 1997  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  Reason Magazine  ·  Epa

A panicked father rushes into the hospital gasping, asthmatic child in his arms. "Help!" cries the boy’s mother. "He can’t breathe!" The ad, sponsored by the Clean Air Trust in affiliation with the American Lung Association, Public Citizen, Defenders of Wildlife, and the Sierra Club, was part of a lobbying effort to support the EPA proposals. So it’s not hard to guess what the culprit is.

Taking their cue from President Clinton and his wife, who couch practically all their initiatives in terms of saving endangered children, proponents of the proposed EPA standards have done likewise. "When it comes to protecting our kids, I will not be swayed," EPA’s Browner dramatically intoned at a recent conference on children’s health.

The child card is repeatedly played: "Hundreds of scientific studies have shown that today’s air pollution levels are shortening lives and harming children," claimed the Natural Resources Defense Council in a newspaper commentary. The ALA has young people with asthma testify at press conferences in support of the EPA’s proposed standards. The Sierra Club is running radio ads that use little children’s voices to push the EPA proposals, saying how stricter regulation will keep them from becoming sick.

Asthma is predominantly a childhood disease. Rates are indeed rising sharply among children. Many environmentalists say this rise is from air pollution and only the white hats at the EPA can stop it. Informing us that "More than 5,000 people die every year from asthma, three times the rate of just 10 years ago," Richard Wiles of the Environmental Working Group adds that "the Clinton administration proposed new health standards for ozone and particulates."

And who are the black hats? Syndicated New York Times columnist Bob Herbert asked readers to choose between "the kids with asthma who have a tough time breathing whenever there is a bad air day or the powerful representatives of the oil industry, the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers, the American Bus Association, the Chemical Manufacturers Association, etc."

You can just picture some fat cigar-chomping businessman sitting on the chest of a poor little child gasping for air. The problem with that picture, though, is that as asthma incidence and deaths have been sharply rising, all the measured types of pollution — including particles and ozone — have been sharply dropping.

Further, studies have failed to show a relationship between even high air pollution levels and asthma. A recent comparison between asthma rates in highly polluted Leipzig in what was then East Germany and the far cleaner Munich in West Germany found asthma rates lower in the East. Noting this and similar findings between squeaky-clean Sweden and polluted Poland, two researchers wrote in the January 3, 1997 issue of Science that these "suggest that asthma prevalence has increased because of something lacking in the urban environment, rather than through the positive actions of some toxic factor."

Shortly before that, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released an analysis of asthma deaths citing a previous study indicating "no evidence exists that supports the role of outdoor pollution levels as the primary factor driving" the asthma increase. Even Harvard’s Douglas Dockery, whose epidemiological work the EPA has so heavily relied upon in promulgating its new standards, admitted (in a co-authored 1996 medical journal article), "There appears to be no evidence that the prevalence of asthma or asthmatic symptoms in children is associated with chronic exposure to particulate, sulfur oxide, or ozone air pollution."

Something else you often don’t hear in the popular press and never hear at all from environmentalists is that the increase in asthma is entirely race-related. For white children and young adults, there has been essentially no increase. It’s all among blacks, to a point where blacks between the ages of 15 and 24 now have six times the asthma death rate of whites the same age. Although there is evidence that blacks are more likely to live downwind of factories than whites, utility plant and car exhaust are spread evenly. Is air pollution bigoted? Or is the increase in asthma related to lifestyle or housing?

In May of 1997, researchers reported that the major cause of asthma in mainly black inner-city neighborhoods is neither cars nor corporations nor chemical companies, but cockroaches — that insect we all love to hate. Overall, it appears that a quarter of all asthma in these areas (which have twice the asthma rate of non-inner-city areas) is from the horrid little things.

"It’s a cruel hoax to lead parents to believe their children will be protected from having asthma if only the EPA clamps down on outdoor air pollution," says biomedical scientist Robert Phalen. And don’t hold your breath (as it were) waiting for a government or activist group campaign against cockroaches when groups like the Chemical Manufacturers’ Association make nicer, and clearly larger, targets.