Dirty Air—or Dirty Tricks?

January 01, 2004  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  Pollution

The cleaner the air gets . . .

How strange! The cleaner our air gets, the sicker we become. At this rate, when the air becomes absolutely pure over L.A. we’ll all keel right over. Or so you might believe from the new report of a group called Clear the Air, "Dirty Power, Dirty Air." It attempts to persuade readers to support one of two Democratic bills introduced in the Senate over a Republican one, although all three would "tighten the lid" on allowable air emissions from power plants. Not incidentally, the legislation called for in the report, by its own reckoning, will cost $34 billion versus $9.3 for the alternative Democratic bill and $6.2 for what it labels the "Bush bill."

You may not think you’re coughing and gasping for air, but trust them – you are. In fact, fine particle pollution from U.S. power plants cuts short the lives of nearly 24,000 people each year, including 2,800 from lung cancer" says the report.

And we’re not talking about losing a few days, but rather an average of 14 years. Air pollution also causes over 38,000 non-fatal heart attacks and more than half a million cases of asthma, it claims.

Gad! Better, it seems, to smoke four packs a day of Camels than live near a coal- or
oil-fired plant. (And don’t even think about proposing the use of safe and clean nuclear energy; Clear the Air has never heard of it.) But if we let just a little ray of sunshine come through that soot-blackened air, here’s what we find Since 1970, the total national emissions of the six principal pollutants the EPA tracks have been cut 48 percent, even as energy consumption increased 42 percent and the population increased 38 percent.

Fine particle emissions, technically known as PM2.5 because it refers to particulate matter 2.5 micrometers or smaller in size, about 1/30 the size of a human hair) have only been tracked since 1993, but by 2002 had fallen 17 percent. In terms of air quality, they have only been measured since 1998 but by 2003 had dropped eight percent.

This is bad news?

We know that Clear the Air is playing pollution prevarication with asthma because even as dirty air levels plummeted, asthma incidence from 1980 to 1999 increased by 83 percent according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

. . . the louder the environmentalists scream.

As to deaths, the report admits the numbers are extrapolated essentially from just two studies. Both were highly controversial and indeed I debunked them in a 1997 article that I later lengthened into the 1997 book Polluted Science.

A 1993 analysis, partly funded by the EPA, was called The Harvard Six Cities Study because it compared PM2.5 levels and deaths among six municipalities. As it happens, four were of no use to the researchers; so it should have been called "The Two Cities Study." Of those two, one had significantly higher PM2.5 levels and higher death rates. Aha! ’Twas fine particles that did the evil deed.

Yet among nonsmokers there was no statistically significant difference in deaths. Different smoking rates could have accounted for everything. Likewise, there was no significant difference in deaths if you excluded persons with occupational exposures to "gases, fumes, or dust."

The researchers also didn’t control for humidity or temperature and they didn’t even consider income differences. Such factors could throw off the whole study. For example the city with more deaths, Steubenville, Ohio, was considerably poorer than the comparison city of Portage, Wisconsin. "Poor persons tend to die more quickly during extreme weather conditions than wealthier ones," Roger McClellan, President Emeritus of the CIIT Centers for Health Research in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina told me. As the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences states: "The affluent citizens of this Nation enjoy better health than do its minority and poorer citizens. The most striking health disparities involve shorter life expectancy among the poor, as well as higher rates of cancer, birth defects, infant mortality, asthma, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease." All the Harvard researchers necessarily showed was that poverty, not particulates, is linked to illness.

In general, the Six Cities Study was a brilliant exercise in omission of "non-useful" information. The particulate hunters carefully excised from their data any personal habit, any occupational exposure, and anything else that would result in anything other than their pre-determined conclusion. They then steadfastly refused to release their data – even to the EPA! They admitted they didn’t want others to analyze them.

Carol Browner’s EPA, essentially a taxpayer-supported environmentalist group, quickly grabbed onto the conclusion of the Six Cities Study, along with that of an equally skewed one from 1995 that had three of the same authors. It demanded fine particle regulation and it got it. Yet a subsequent review of all particulate studies, conducted by Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center epidemiologist Suresh Moolgavkar and a colleague found no evidence that anybody has ever died from PM2.5 or larger particles.

They wrote that while some have "argued that the association of particulates with mortality is remarkably consistent from city to city, in the presence or absence of other pollutants, and under varying conditions of weather," they have "been unable to identify a single study in which other pollution variables have been adequately controlled." Moolgavkar explained to me, "When you look at the studies, you generally see that only one pollutant is observed at a time. They don’t look at the complex mixture; they just focus on particulates. Often times they have the data available, but they just don’t use it."

Last August in France, a mind-boggling 15,000 people died during a single heat wave. By the standards of much of the U.S., temperatures weren’t that high. But air conditioning is rare in France, even in hospitals and nursing homes. Why? Because taxes pushed by the French equivalents of Clear the Air drove up energy costs.

If Clear the Air gets its way, we’ll be trading theoretical deaths derived through the use of smoke and mirrors for real deaths with real bodies. But until we get rid of that last piece of soot, apparently that’s just the price they’re willing to have us pay.