Another Smoldering Stogie of Misinformation from the Lung Association

If you watch Fox News—and really, who doesn’t watch Fox News?—you’ve probably seen the ads the American Lung Association is running displaying a red baby carriage with a coughing infant making its way to the U.S. capitol, urging us to urge Congress not to “weaken” the Clean Air Act.  “More air pollution means more childhood asthma,” the narrator says. (There isn’t a direct link to the ad, but you can find it on the linked site of their PR agency, the Plowshare Group, and if that name doesn’t give it all way. . .)

“Congress can’t ignore the facts,” the narrator says, but apparently the ALA can.  Is there any place in the U.S. that is experiencing “more” air pollution?  If there is, I am not aware of it, nor am I aware of any EPA data that supports that claim.  Air pollution continues to fall everywhere in the U.S., and is going to continue to decline.  The ALA ad is fundamentally dishonest in that Congress is not proposing to “weaken” the Clean Air Act; it is merely proposing to stop its further extension that will do little or nothing to accelerate the continuing decline in air pollution levels.   (The EPA’s own computer models, for example, predict about a 60 percent decline in emissions from cars and trucks over the next 20 years simply from fleet turnover.)  In fact, the recent ozone rules that Obama dumped would have had no effect, for example, on the rate at which air pollution is falling in Los Angeles.  (Emissions from cars and trucks have been falling about 8 percent a year for over a decade, with more to come.)  All it would have done is put about 85 percent of the nation in “nonattainment” areas, tripping requirements to expand their regulatory bureaucracies.

More to the point is that the health effects claims of the ALA and other greenies are probably wrong, or at least out of date.  Yes, the incidence of asthma has been steadily increasing, though most of the research into why this is occurring suggest the cause is some kind of autoimmune anomaly, and not air pollution levels.  While air pollution, especially particulates, may trigger asthma in people who already have it, it almost certainly does not cause someone to contract the ailment.  (While our EPA is slavish to the alarmist line, check out Australia’s Office of Health, which says straightforwardly: “There is no evidence that air pollution causes asthma.”) In fact, guess which nations have some of the lowest asthma rates according to the 1998 International Study of Asthma and Allergies in Childhood (ISAAC): China, India, Mexico, and Indonesia—not exactly known as low air pollution nations, to put it lightly.  Oddly, the nations with cleaner air have higher asthma rates.  (See Figure 1.)

Figure 1: Asthma Prevalence by Nation, 1998

The National Asthma Council of Australia commented on these counterintuitive data when they were out back around 2002 (unfortunately no longer available online):

 One of the most interesting findings from the ISAAC study is that the international pattern of prevalence cannot be completely explained by our current knowledge of recognized risk factors for the development of asthma.  Contrary to popular belief, the global patterns of asthma prevalence provides evidence that air pollution is not a major risk factor for the development of asthma, rather, it is merely a minor trigger in some individuals.  For example, some regions in China and Eastern Europe with high levels of air pollution have generally low rates of asthma prevalence.  Conversely, some regions with the lowest rates of air pollution such as parts of New Zealand have high rates of asthma.  Overall, it would appear that outdoor air pollution is more likely to be a trigger factor in older people with respiratory conditions other than asthma.

Some years ago I decided to plot the trends in asthma against trends in ozone. The results from 1982 to 1997 are in the figure below.  Where is the cause-effect relationship here?  (Starting in 1998, the U.S, began diagnosing and classifying asthma differently, such that the data is not continuous and can’t be extended forward. But I have little doubt the trend would look the same for the last decade if we had the same data parameters.)

Figure 2: Asthma Rates and Ambient Ozone Level

One more chart to make this point clearer, this time with particulates instead of ozone.  When Joel Schwartz and I were writing our book Air Quality in America about five years ago, we looked at asthma rates and air pollution levels at the county level in California, the state with the highest air pollution levels.  The figure below displays asthma prevalence by county and the number of days each county exceeds the old PM10 standard.  While this figure is a little hard to make out, it is clear there is no correlation between particulate levels and asthma.  The data for ozone and asthma by county look almost identical.

Figure 3: Asthma Prevalence and Particulate Levels by County in CA

Of course, this whole ALA crusade is a good example of groups that need to change their mission as time moves on, and becoming an adjunct of the left is usually the easiest way.  The ALA was founded more than a century ago to fight tuberculosis.  When I was a kid growing up, the ALA was mostly about convincing us to quit cigarette smoking.  Now that that mission is nearly accomplished, they have to move on to something else.  Trouble is, air pollution is going to prove a fading issue, too, because in another two or three decades there isn’t going to be much left here in the U.S.