Climategate: MoveOn's Triple Whopper

Air quality in the United States has improved dramatically over the past 40 years, yet MoveOn.Org wants you to believe that breathing the air is like being a pack-a-day smoker.

MoveOn broadcasts this disinformation in TV ads bashing Senators Blanche Lincoln (D-AR), Ben Nelson (D-NB), and Mary Landrieu (D-LA). The ads show little leaguers, a mother and her bottle-feeding infant, track athletes, and even a mother giving birth all smoking cigarettes. As these images flash by, the text of the ads says:

While Senator Landrieu [or Lincoln, or Nelson] works to roll back the Clean Air Act

Many Americans are already smoking the equivalent of a pack a day.

Just from breathing the air.

Senator Landrieu [or Lincoln, or Nelson], Americans need the Clean Air Act.

Leave it alone.

The MoveOn ad is a triple whopper, piling falsehood upon falsehood upon falsehood. No American smokes the equivalent of a pack a day just by breathing. The senators are not working to “roll back” the Clean Air Act. The policy they support -- one that MoveOn opposes -- would not slow any federal or state efforts to clean the air. Let’s examine each falsehood in turn.

MoveOn claims that “many” Americans breathe the equivalent of a pack of cigarettes a day. Cigarette smoking accounts for 30% of all cancer deaths in the United States, and nine out of 10 lung cancer deaths. So how does cigarette smoke compare with outdoor air in regard to airborne carcinogens?

Nazaroff and Singer (2004), a study by researchers at UC Berkeley and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, found that, by breathing indoor “environmental tobacco smoke” (ETS), non-smokers who live with a smoker each year inhale 1.2 to 150 times more of six known carcinogens than they inhale from “ambient” (outdoor) sources. Smokers themselves get a bigger dose of carcinogens, since they inhale both first- and second-hand smoke.

Not only is MoveOn’s pack-a-day claim false, it could also harm “the children,” because it trivializes the risks of smoking. After all, a gullible teenager might reason, if breathing is as unhealthy as smoking, then how bad can smoking be?

Maybe what MoveOn means is that people living in some U.S. cities inhale as much airborne particulate matter (PM) as a smoker gets from a pack a day. Much recent EPA action targets the so-called fine particles, those measuring 2.5 micrometers (μm) or less in size, known in regulatory parlance as PM2.5. Elevated levels of PM2.5 are associated with increased risks of cardiopulmonary and cardiovascular diseases. Do many (or any) of us get a pack-a-day dose of PM2.5 just by breathing?

Koong et al. (2009), a 24-country study by three prestigious health institutes, found substantially higher PM2.5 levels in workplace ETS than in the ambient air, in all regions of the world. In the Americas, for example, PM2.5 levels average 248 micrograms per cubic meter (μg/m3) in workplaces where smoking is allowed. On the other hand, PM2.5 in outdoor air averages less than 15 μg/m3, and even the most polluted U.S. cities average about 20 μg/m3, or less than one-tenth the 248 μg/m3 of PM2.5 found in smoking venues.

Similarly, Proescholdbell et al. (2009), a study published by the Centers for Disease Control, reports that in six counties in North Carolina, PM2.5 levels in smoke-free restaurants and bars averaged 15 μg/m3 compared to 253 μg/m3 in smoking venues. EPA’s Air Trends Report (p. 21) shows that no city has a 24-hour average PM2.5 level higher than 80 μg/m3 -- nowhere near the 253 μg/m3 smoking establishments average year-round.