EPA's Pollution-Asthma Theory Is Full of Bugs

January 01, 1997  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  Investor’s Business Daily, Inc.  ·  Epa

Taking their cue from Bill and Hillary Clinton, who couch most new legislation in terms of helping children, backers of the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed standards for airborne particles and ozone have done the same.

Specifically, they have invoked rising child asthma rates. But while their claims are emotionally gripping, their arguments are scientifically bankrupt.

"When it comes to protecting our kids, I will not be swayed," EPA Administrator Carol Browner told a recent conference on children’s health in a push for the new pollution standards. "If the science shows that we have to do more to ensure that our kids are safe from pollution, then that is precisely what we will do."

Of course, she insists the science shows just that.

Meanwhile, the Sierra Club is running radio ads that use little children’s voices to push the EPA proposals.

Most of the emphasis is on asthma, which largely afflicts children.

Asthma rates are indeed rising sharply among children — enough to merit the cover of the May 26 edition of Newsweek. Naturally, the environmentalists say, this rise is from air pollution, and only the white knights at the EPA can stop it.

Just as naturally, the pundits have joined in the morality play.

Syndicated New York Times columnist Bob Herbert asked readers to choose between "the kids with asthma" or "the powerful representatives of the oil industry, the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers, the American Bus Association, the Chemical Manufacturers Association, etc."

Can’t you just picture some fat cigar-chomping businessman sitting on the chest of a poor little child gasping for air?

But the air pollution-asthma link has a problem even Newsweek had to admit: The evidence stands squarely against it. Asthma incidence and deaths have been sharply rising while 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 pollution levels and asthma.

A study 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 issue of the journal Science that the data "suggest that asthma prevalence has increased because of something lacking in the urban environment, rather than through the positive actions of some toxic factor."

So why are asthma rates increasing?

Better diagnoses, as is the case with many diseases, is probably one reason. Doctors simply recognize the disease more often.

Another study published in Science indicates that, ironically, part of the growth may be connected to a declining rate of respiratory infections such as tuberculosis. A lack of immune system stimulation from such diseases, the authors theorized, could make people’s lungs less ready to fend off the irritants that cause asthma.

Another major factor may be that, when energy prices skyrocketed in the early 1970s, both businesses and individuals began using far more insulation, and builders began making less drafty houses. With less fresh air circulating into these "tighter" homes, indoor pollutants such as cooking by-products, pet dander, tobacco smoke, hair spray, and insect droppings were more likely to build up.

This month, researchers reported in the New England Journal of Medicine that the major cause of asthma in inner cities is neither cars nor corporations, but the "pollution" from that insect we all love to hate, the cockroach.

Overall, it appears that a quarter of all asthma in these areas (which have twice the asthma rate as more affluent areas) is from cockroach waste. The asthma is an allergic reaction to the roaches’ saliva, decaying body parts and what environmental regulators might call "tailpipe emissions."

But don’t hold your breath (as it were) waiting for a government or activist-group campaign against cockroaches. The EPA doesn’t have jurisdiction over bugs. And after all, groups like the Chemical Manufacturers’ Association make nicer — and bigger — targets.