A body of evidence for bodily harm from air pollution
This week, the Washington Times ran an op-ed by Steve Milloy in which he asks the EPA to “show him the bodies” of victims of polluted air. He questions whether the agency has “tangible evidence” that emissions from power plants are “causing actual harm to real people.”
It is tempting to go line by line through the piece debunking each point. But Milloy makes a specific request to see “bodies,” and sadly, that is easy enough to show him.
The science showing the harmful effects of particulate matter, or soot, is very strong. The microscopic bits spewed out of smokestacks around the nation are small enough that they can travel deep into human lungs and can even slip directly into the bloodstream.
The result: higher incidences of asthma, bronchitis, impaired lung development in children, and heart disease.
Questioning these health concerns means countering a substantial body of empirical health studies, conducted both by federal agencies and by independent researchers. These studies, which have been subjected to the scrutiny of the peer review process, have come to a set of well-supported conclusions about the relationship between particulate matter and mortality — the focus of Milloy’s post.
This research, which has included efforts by the National Research Council and has been reviewed by a range of independent bodies, has led the American Lung Association to make reduction of particulate matter pollution a core priority.
If Milloy is actually interested in looking for the “bodies,” he should simply examine the peer-reviewed studies [PDF] that back up the EPA’s analysis. It is true that particulate matter is a silent killer — risks are spread over large populations, masking the true threat. But when standard scientific tools are used, the reality becomes very clear: This is a deadly pollutant that takes a substantial toll.
Milloy also asks the EPA “demonstrate that its ever-tightening air quality and emissions standards are producing actual benefits.” Luckily, the agency recently released a deep study of the costs and benefits of amendments to the Clean Air Act between 1990 and 2020. The report uses the most rigorous, academically defensible economic tools to evaluate the worth of healthy air.
Avoided are costs like doctors’ visits, increased property values, and, yes, pollution-related deaths. These and other benefits add up to $1.3 trillion, compared to costs of only $53 billion in 2010. Milloy may believe that industry is the true victim, subject to the whim of government regulators. But these figures show who actually pays the price when pollution goes unchecked: the American public.
Once we start down the road of challenging basic scientific findings, there is no clear stopping point. What started out as criticism of climate models has expanded to questions about the basic science supporting public health protections. While understanding these studies may take a basic scientific education, any responsible commentator should take the time to do a review of the literature before making broad based assertions about agency bad faith. EPA shouldn’t have to drag anyone to the morgue to make its point: The facts about particulate pollution have been established over the course of several decades of publicly available research, at the fingertips of anyone actually interested in learning the truth.