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.
Again, common sense suggests that active smokers get a bigger dose of PM2.5 from the butt end of a cigarette than non-smokers get from ETS, and the scientific literature confirms this. Pope et al. (2009), a study published by the American Heart Association, plainly states: “The estimated daily dose of PM2.5 from typical long-term exposure to SHS (second-hand smoke or ETS) or ambient air pollution is extremely small compared with the estimated dose from active cigarette smoking.” Consequently, “The estimated relative risks from active cigarette smoking, even at relatively light smoking levels, are substantially larger than the relative risks from ambient air pollution or SHS.”
Let’s look at the numbers behind these statements. The daily dose of a pack-a-day smoker (20 cigarettes per day) is 140 to 240 milligrams of PM2.5. The daily dose of a non-smoker living in cities with high annual average PM2.5 levels (24.5 μg/m3) is 0.44 to 0.56 milligrams. In other words, the pack-a-day smoker inhales hundreds of times more PM2.5 than non-smokers do. Indeed, the Pope study reveals that smoking just one cigarette delivers 12 to 27 times the daily dose of PM2.5 that non-smokers get from the air in cities with high PM2.5 levels.
MoveOn is blowing smoke — nowhere in the United States is breathing the equivalent of a pack a day or even one cigarette a day.
Turning now to the second falsehood, none of the senators is working to “roll back” the Clean Air Act. The senators have crossed party lines to support a resolution, introduced by Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, to stop the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from dealing itself, trial lawyers, and activist judges into a position to set climate policy for the nation.
Here’s the pertinent background you won’t get from MoveOn’s attack ads. Last December, EPA issued a finding that emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases endanger public health and welfare. If this were just a scientific assessment of the relevant literature — like the surgeon general’s famous finding in 1964 that cigarette smoke causes cancer — the Senate would have no business voting on it.
But unlike the surgeon general’s report, which did not presume even to advise Congress on policy options, EPA’s finding will trigger a regulatory cascade through multiple provisions of the Clean Air Act. EPA could end up administering global warming regulations more costly and intrusive than any Congress has considered and either rejected or failed to pass, yet without the people’s elected representatives ever voting on the policies.
As even the EPA all-but-acknowledges, the endangerment finding tees up several “absurd results” that are contrary to congressional intent. For example, EPA will have to apply Clean Air Act pre-construction permitting requirements to tens of thousands of small businesses, and operating permit requirements to millions. Unless EPA poaches legislative power and amends the Act, as it proposes to do in its legally dubious “tailoring rule,” the permitting programs will crash under the own weight, freezing construction activity and putting millions of firms in legal limbo. Apply the Clean Air Act to CO2 — the inescapable consequence of the endangerment finding — and the Act mutates into a gigantic anti-stimulus program.
Murkowski’s resolution would avert this debacle. In so doing, it would also remove the necessity for EPA to play lawmaker and violate the separation of powers in order to avoid “absurd results.” The Murkowski resolution would be good policy even if we were not experiencing the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.
MoveOn also neglects to mention that the endangerment finding logically commits EPA to establish national ambient air quality standards (NAAQS) for CO2 set below current atmospheric levels. Even a global depression lasting several decades would not be enough to bring America (and the world) into attainment with such a standard. Yet the Clean Air Act obligates states to attain “primary” (health-based) NAAQS within five or at most 10 years, or face various restrictions and sanctions such as the loss of federal highway funds. Regulating CO2 under the NAAQS program is a recipe for national economic disaster. Murkowski’s resolution would nip that mischief in the bud as well.
Although a strong case can be made that the endangerment finding is scientifically flawed, that is not what Sen. Murkowski’s resolution is about. Contrary to misrepresentation by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and others, the resolution is not a referendum on climate science. It is a referendum on whether bureaucrats with a vested interest in expanding their power should make climate policy. The resolution would veto the regulatory force and legal effect of the endangerment finding — not its scientific reasoning or conclusions. Indeed, Sen. Murkowski is not a global warming skeptic, nor is she opposed in principle to greenhouse gas regulation. She simply believes that climate policy is too important to be made by a bureaucracy with no accountability to the American people.
The Murkowski resolution would not change one word of the Clean Air Act. It would not alter any program that EPA administers under the Act. It would not reduce funding for any EPA program. It would, however, avert an era of unaccountable regulation. It’s this defense of democracy that MoveOn.org vilifies.
MoveOn’s third whopper is the notion — implied rather than stated — that CO2 is an air contaminant like tobacco smoke and, thus, that anyone who opposes EPA regulation of CO2 must be in favor of polluting the air. Unless EPA regulates CO2 emissions, MoveOn suggests, even more people will smoke just by breathing.
This claim too is complete bunk. An odorless, colorless trace gas that is non-toxic to humans and animals at more than 30 times ambient levels, CO2 is an essential plant nutrient, the basic building block of the planetary food chain. Animal life depends on plant life, and plants raised in CO2-enriched environments grow larger and faster, use water more efficiently, and are more resilient to environmental stresses such as drought and air pollution. Yes, CO2 is a greenhouse (heat trapping) gas, but so is water vapor, which obviously is not air pollution. Calling CO2 emissions “carbon pollution” is a rhetorical trick designed to fool the unwary into believing the kind of nonsense MoveOn.org is peddling.
History proves that cleaning the air does not depend on capping or otherwise restricting CO2 emissions. U.S. air quality has improved dramatically, decade by decade for almost as long as we’ve been measuring it. Indeed, particulate matter has been dropping since at least the late 1950s. Between 1980 and 2008, nationwide air pollution levels decreased 79% for carbon monoxide, 25% for ozone, 92% for lead, 46% for nitrogen dioxide, and 71% for sulfur dioxide. Between 1990 and 2008, air pollution levels decreased 31% for coarse particulates (PM10) and 20% for PM2.5.
This progress will continue under regulations already on the books or planned, as motor vehicle fleets turn over to cleaner vehicles and new capital stock replaces old. The bottom line: America’s air is very clean by historical standards, and pollution levels will continue to drop under existing EPA and state requirements that will not be affected in any way by the Murkowski resolution.
MoveOn’s ad campaign is a falsehood from top to bottom. MoveOn.org should promptly do three things: (1) Apologize to Sens. Landrieu, Lincoln, and Nelson for subjecting them to a smear campaign. (2) Apologize to its members for feeding them falsehoods instead of providing truthful information. (3) Return every penny to anyone whom the ads frightened or angered into contributing money to MoveOn.Org.