State of the Scare: The American Lung Association’s Fear Campaign

Published January 1, 2008
Editor’s note: This article is the third in a three-part series by Joel Schwartz regarding the American Lung Association’s State of the Air 2007 report, released on May 1. Parts 1 and 2 appeared in the July and October 2007 issues of Environment & Climate News.

In the July and October issues of Environment & Climate News I showed how the American Lung Association misleads Americans about air pollution levels and trends in their communities and the nation, and how activists exaggerate the harm from any given level of air pollution. In this article I show how our air is in fact safe to breathe.

Ignoring Direct Evidence

Instead of acknowledging all the direct evidence that our air is safe to breathe, regulators and activists focus on indirect evidence from so-called “observational” epidemiology studies. These studies work with non-randomly selected subjects and non-randomly assigned pollution exposures and then use statistical methods to try to remove the biases inherent in non-random data.

Most epidemiological studies you read about in the newspaper–assessing the effects of diet or health habits on risk of cancer or heart disease, for example–are of this non-randomized, observational sort. In contrast to the direct evidence that current, low-level air pollution is not a health threat, these observational studies report small correlations between air pollution levels and risk of death.

A wealth of evidence has accumulated showing observational studies give spurious results, often “finding” effects that aren’t really there and producing results that reflect researchers’ expectations rather than reality.

Much conventional medical wisdom based on observational epidemiology studies has been tested and overturned by randomized controlled trials–a gold-standard methodology that eliminates the biases inherent in observational studies.

For example, hormone replacement therapy and Vitamin A turned out not to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease (Vitamin A actually increases cardiovascular risks); following a low-fat diet turned out not to reduce the risk of heart disease or colorectal and breast cancers; and calcium supplements didn’t reduce the risk of osteoporosis. Observational air pollution studies should be considered just as unreliable.

Cleaner Air, Greater Fear

Perhaps not surprisingly, regulators, environmentalists, and most air pollution epidemiologists have ignored the problem of false results from observational studies.

Instead, their air pollution propaganda machine marches on. The American Lung Association (ALA) continues to claim children, the elderly, and those with respiratory diseases are especially “sensitive” to air pollution. They and other activists shamelessly exploit these ostensibly “at risk” groups, parading them at regulatory hearings and news conferences.

Medical doctors volunteer for ALA and other environmental groups to “educate” people about the ostensible harm from trace levels of air pollution. Local officials issue “code red” and “code orange” alerts when air pollution exceeds federal standards, creating the false appearance that going outside is hazardous. The number of alerts increases each time EPA tightens the standards, creating a false appearance of increasing risk even as air quality continues to improve.

EPA tightened the federal PM2.5 (fine particulate matter) standard in 2006 and recently proposed a much more stringent eight-hour ozone standard that it expects to finalize after press time for this publication. The new standards are so stringent most cities will soon have dozens of air pollution alerts each year, compared with somewhere between zero and a handful in most places today.

We’ll have cleaner air … and yet greater fear.

Power to Regulators, Activists

What explains this relentless exaggeration of environmental risks? Regulators’ and environmentalists’ powers, funding, and prestige depend on the continued public perception that air pollution is still a serious problem. The regulatory system is fraught with conflicts of interest that allow these groups to pursue their interests and ideology at taxpayer expense.

The Environmental Protection Agency sets the nation’s air pollution health standards. That means regulators get to decide when their own jobs are finished. Not surprisingly, then, federal and state regulators provide millions of dollars a year in funding to environmental groups, which use the money to augment public fear of pollution and agitate for expansion of regulators’ powers.

Regulators are likewise major funders of the health research intended to demonstrate the alleged need for more regulation. Government officials decide what questions are asked, which scientists are funded to answer them, and how the research is portrayed in official reports. Scientists who choose a career in environmental health research are self-selected for environmentalist ideology. Many of those researchers have explicitly associated themselves with environmental groups such as ALA.

Much as activists would like us to think otherwise, environmentalism isn’t about health, and it isn’t about science. It’s about power, control, and ideology.

So the next time you see a scary report from an environmental group, breathe easier.

Joel Schwartz ([email protected]) is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

For more information …

For more examples of exaggeration of harm from air pollution, see Joel Schwartz, Air Pollution and Health: Do Popular Portrayals Reflect the Scientific Evidence?: