The Mark UP

As A Matter of Fact, Carbon Pollution Does Increase Asthma and other Respiratory Illnesses

The League of Women Voters has been airing ads calling on Senators Scott Brown (R-MA) and Claire McCaskill (D-MO) to protect people rather than polluters.  The ads are designed to educate voters about the public health consequences that would occur if amendments these Senators voted for had become law.

The factual basis for the ads is the formal determination by the Environmental Protection Agency that greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane, endanger public health and welfare.

The largest sources of these emissions are power plants (“smokestacks”) and automobiles (“tailpipes”).

In a baffling post that misses the mark by a wide margin, Factcheck.org concluded that these ads are deceptive because “all that the senators voted to curb was the government’s attempt to regulate carbon dioxide and other “greenhouse” gases, which have no direct connection to asthma, and an indirect connection that is a matter of debate in the medical community.”

Yet Factcheck.org acknowledges that “In its technical findings, EPA went so far as to say that ‘climate change is expected to increase regional ozone pollution, with associated risks in respiratory illnesses and premature death.’ This is indeed the fundamental factual basis for the advertisements, but apparently Factcheck.org believes that it is qualified to substitute its judgment for the carefully developed conclusion of the agency Americans rely on to protect our health from pollution.

Factcheck’s argument has two components. First, it says that greenhouse gases have no “direct” connection to asthma. I agree.

But the ads in question did not assert that the connection is direct; whether the connection is direct or indirect is irrelevant. EPA found that greenhouse gases endanger public health because they cause climate change, which is expected to increase regional ozone pollution, which causes asthma attacks and other respiratory illnesses commonly treated with the type of nebulizer depicted in the ads.

Second, Factcheck.org says that the indirect connection is a matter of debate in the medical community.

Not so. And even if that were true, the ads are fully justified based on EPA’s finding. EPA’s finding was based on an exhaustive review of the peer reviewed scientific literature and subject to extensive public review and comment. On the other side, Factcheck.org quotes one solitary doctor, David Bernstein, who says only that “To my knowledge, there is no convincing evidence in the medical literature indicating that CO2 and methane directly affect asthma symptoms, asthma morbidity or asthma mortality.” [emphasis added]

Again, no one is asserting a direct connection; hence that quote is irrelevant. The follow up quote by Dr. Bernstein only relates to the potential role of carbon dioxide in stimulating pollen production, not its role in increasing ozone concentrations, which Factcheck.org makes no attempt to dispute.

Meanwhile, Dr. Georges Benjamin, the chief executive officer of the American Public Health Association, said in February: “Now the public health and medical communities are very clear; greenhouse gases are the leading cause of climate change and human activity is to blame. It concerns us that climate change poses enormous health risks. Climate change can lead to extreme weather events, putting the health of elderly, sick and vulnerable populations at greater risk. It can lead to increased air pollution, which is linked to asthma and other respiratory illnesses.”

A September 2010 letter to the president and Congress signed by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association, the American Public Health Association and 15 other national organizations of health professionals said: “Climate change is a serious public health issue. As temperatures rise, more Americans will be exposed to conditions that can result in illness and death due to respiratory illness, heat- and weather-related stress and disease carried by insects.”  It went on to say: “We also urge opposition to any efforts to weaken, delay or block the EPA from protecting the public’s health from these risks.” [emphasis in original]

Similarly, the American Lung Association “strongly opposes any legislation that would block the authority of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to implement the Clean Air Act” [including specifically the amendments that Senators Brown and McCaskill voted for], and notes that “scientists warn that the buildup of greenhouse gases and the climate changes caused by it will create conditions, including warmer temperatures, which will increase the risk of unhealthful ambient ozone levels. Higher temperatures can enhance the conditions for ozone formation. Even with the steps that are in place to reduce ozone, evidence warns that changes in climate are likely to increase ozone levels in the future in large parts of the United States. To protect human health, the nation needs strong measures to reduce climate change and ozone.”

This view was echoed by more than 1800 doctors, nurses, and other health professionals who wrote to Congress on February 9th to urge members to “support the full implementation and enforcement of the Clean Air Act.” Based on the 2007 Supreme Court Ruling in Massachusetts v. EPA, full implementation and enforcement of the Clean Air Act includes establishing pollution standards for greenhouse gases from power plants and automobiles.

Interestingly, the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, which Factcheck.org consulted, also finds that there is a connection between climate change and asthma:

Global warming not only affects our weather but also potentially your allergies, especially if your symptoms are triggered by pollens or molds. We are bringing you the latest research on this subject. Patients who have noticed a connection between their asthma and weather trends may also be interested in this feature story…”Climate changes are a reality, and they can be documented if long enough periods of time are considered,” according to Renato Ariano, MD, lead author of the study.

What seems to bother Factcheck.org the most is that the ads did not specifically name the pollutants that EPA would have been blocked from regulating under the amendments supported by Senators Brown and McCaskill. It is not reasonable to demand that the League of Women voters provide a technical list of all the chemicals (which includes not only carbon dioxide and methane, but also hydrofluorocarbons and sulfur hexafluoride) affected by the amendments that are the subject of the ads. Factcheck.org complains that one of the ads shows a girl coloring the sky black whereas carbon dioxide is a colorless gas. But would any reasonable person take this symbolism literally?

Factcheck.org appears to want the League of Women voters to go out of its way to distinguish greenhouse gases from other pollutants covered by the Clean Air Act. But the Supreme Court found no such distinction in Massachusetts v. EPA, concluding that greenhouse gases plainly meet the definition of air pollutant under the act.

Factcheck.org has every right to consider the League’s ads harsh, but it has no factual basis for declaring them deceptive. And for an organization with its name, shouldn’t the facts matter?