Air-pollution scare debunked

By Steve Milloy and Dr. John Dale Dunn
August 19, 2011, Washington Times

What if today’s levels of air pollution didn’t kill anybody?

That certainly would be bad news for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which has spent the past 15 years stubbornly defending its extraordinarily expensive and ever-tightening air-quality regulations.

The EPA claims airborne fine particulate matter kills tens of thousands annually and that the prevention of those deaths will provide society $2 trillion annually in monetized health benefits by 2020.

But we can debunk those claims with more than mere criticisms of EPA’s statistical malpractice and secret data. We have actual data that simply discredit the EPA’s claims.

Everyone (including environmental zealots) agrees that the worst air-pollution episode ever to occur in the United States occurred in Donora, Pa., in October 1948.

Daytime in Donora, late-October 1948

For three days, an unusual and stifling temperature inversion trapped noxious fumes from local industry in Donora’s valley. By the time rain finally came to clear away the smog, thousands had been affected, hundreds had been sickened, and 20 elderly persons were dead. The Donora tragedy was a sentinel event on the path to the federal Clean Air Act that finally was enacted in 1963.

Ironically, though, when the Donora episode is studied rather than simply exploited as a rhetorical device, that debunks the EPA’s assertion that present-day air quality is a killer.

The U.S. Public Health Service investigated the Donora tragedy and in 1949 issued a report titled “Air Pollution in Donora, Pa.: Epidemiology of the Smog Episode of October 1948.”

The report indicates that the death rates for the period 1945-48 for Donora and nearby Pittsburgh were 826 and 1,086 per 100,000 people, respectively.

Surprisingly, those mortality rates compare pretty well with the most recent mortality data for Allegheny County, Pa., home to both Donora and Pittsburgh.

During the years 2006-08, Allegheny County’s mortality rate was 1,110 per 100,000. And while mortality rate is one of the few objective public health statistics available, there’s much more to this story than simply comparing then-and-now mortality rates.

Donora’s air quality was measured by the U.S. Weather Bureau from Feb. 16 to April 27, 1949 – i.e., more than three months after the October inversion and during what would be considered normal air-quality conditions in Donora.

The Weather Bureau’s measurements of airborne particulate matter are astonishing and compelling. Of the 205 air samples taken at 12 stations during those 10 weeks in Donora, 54 percent exceeded 500 micrograms per cubic meter.

While the other 46 percent of the readings were less than 500 micrograms per cubic meter, it’s likely that all of those were likely far greater than today’s EPA’s standard for maximum allowable fine particulate matter, which is 35 micrograms per cubic meter during a 24-hour period.

In contrast, Allegheny County violated this modern EPA standard just twice during 2007-09.

So, although the air in Allegheny County is much cleaner than it was in the years following World War II, the mortality rate is about the same.

Moreover, the mortality rate in Donora from 1945-48 was 26 percent lower than the 2006-08 death rate in surrounding Allegheny County, despite the fact that the air was far dirtier as measured by the Weather Bureau in 1949, when more than half the time it exceeded the current EPA standard by a factor of 14 or more.

So what happened in Donora? The unusual inversion trapped toxic chemical fumes from facilities that did not cease operations until conditions had reached obviously toxic levels. The 20 elderly people who died in Donora (mean and median age 65) were all already suffering chronic heart and lung disease.

Autopsies indicated that unknown substances caused the deaths, which the Public Health Service’s report analogized to the World War I chemical weapon phosgene. There was no evidence that particulate matter caused any deaths.

Although the Donora tragedy could not occur today because of stringent air-toxins regulations, modern emissions-control technology, vastly improved medical care and the societal wealth to afford it all, the EPA nonetheless likes to pretend that today’s air quality is as poor and dangerous as it ever was and that we are all just one orange or red air-quality day away from death.

The agency’s remedy is a slew of new regulations – such as its imminent ozone rule, which is estimated to be the most expensive regulation ever, costing $1 trillion annually in real compliance costs after 2020 and killing as many as 7.4 million actual jobs.

In November 1950, the Public Health Service’s Donora report was reviewed in the Journal of the American Medical Association, which observed, “There is need to know whether there is an insidious effect on those living their lifetime under an industrially polluted sky. Statistical studies of death rates in industrial cities are not sufficient. The situation requires the best in investigative medicine.”

While no one in America anymore lives under an “industrially polluted sky,” the call for “investigative” medicine 60 years ago still has not been answered. Instead, the EPA has spent tens and perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars cooking up dubious statistical claims about air quality without ever checking to see if they match up with reality.

If the EPA seriously maintains that its existing and new air regulations are providing trillions of dollars’ worth of health benefits, it should be compelled to produce hard medical evidence of those claimed benefits.

Sixty-three years ago, the Donora tragedy alerted society that air could become deadly in certain situations. It helped America choose a path toward the clean air we have now.

We can recycle the lesson of Donora. This time, however, we must make sure we don’t allow an out-of-control EPA to wreck our economy and kill jobs with overly stringent regulations that only “prevent” imaginary deaths and illness at real and significant costs that we can’t afford.

Steve Milloy publishes and is the author of “Green Hell: How Environmentalists Plan to Ruin Your Life and What You Can Do to Stop Them” (Regnery, 2009). Dr. John Dale Dunn is an emergency physician in Texas.

40 thoughts on “Air-pollution scare debunked”

  1. Folks,

    While the EPA may have spent much money in accumulating statistics, some of which you probably rightfully consider false, there is an overwhelming amount with differing conclusions and I would guess that their case is better than yours from your limited sample. Please consider some well-accepted probability theory when considering evidence.

    Those of you who consider me an “agent for industry, etc.” should do some research about my activities. I am an active member of a number of environmental groups and have published many articles and posted You Tube videos (see rsstein i) and published a book on “The Energy Problem” expressing my views. I had a former CEO of Monsanto in my chemistry class in 1952 and (perhaps rightfully) gave him a grade of “D”. He thanked me later saying that this convinced him that his career was to be in business rather than science.

    I have been retired for 22 years, receive no federal or industrial money, and, in fact, have donated appreciable amounts to a university endowment supporting sustainability. I suspect some of my critics could not make similar claims. Rather than make disparaging remarks, they should respect facts more and realize that I am really on their side and have been acting to try to make the world better based on 60+ years of experience.

  2. Just saw a history channel special on the donora smog of 48. This is very personal to me because my dad and his family were all from donora and surrounding areas. They all died young and all of different forms of cancer. Many would not show up in the mortality tables due to relocating in the early 50s to Detroit. However many did die young in the donora area. Don’t claim to know if the freak smog was the only reason but think it would be ridiculous to believe that there are not some serious issues in and around that town. Between steel mills, coal mines, air quality, radon gas those folks did not have a chance to live long lives. The article and other research states the population went from 14,000 to 6,000 today. Would love to know the mortality rates of all that left the area and died within 35 years of that time frame. If my family and extended family are any indication the rates would be way above normal range.

  3. Bill. Nice data. However, Black Lung and associated disorders from extremely pollution are well-documented, and not what we are discussing. Just from the abstract, the majority of the men were involved with a fire in a sulfur mine. In such a situation, I’m surprised more aren’t flat-out dead (concentrated SO3 in the lungs is a nasty thing).

    Hyperbole aside, the root of what we are discussing IS further reductions in atmospheric pollution levels. All other topics lead to that one. Therefore, citing absurd levels of pollution isn’t relevant when we are arguing whether we have crossed the no-effects threshold on ozone and PM.

  4. Ms. Knox. Don’t forget that in the 50s, the 70 years old was the exception. Only the strongest and healthiest of people live to that age naturally, so you would have a healthier and stronger overall population at that age.

    Today, it is not rare to see your great-great grandchildren before you die. The people who would normally be dead are still alive due to modern medicine, so you have a weaker overall population.

    Statistics are funny things. Look up “helmets cause cowardace” for a similar incident in WW1.

  5. Mr. Bowman,
    You hit the point home. While the Simpson paradox is quite certainly possible, the problem is that “Air Pollution” is never listed on death certificates outside of the absolutely-worst case scenarios. Therefore, we should correlate non-violent deaths only, adjusted for plagues, infections, and the like. Realistically, that data simply isn’t available for analysis of that type.

    The evidence isn’t clear that air pollution doesn’t cause problems, but there is strong evidence that the million dead estimated by the EPA is a clear exaggeration.

  6. Here’s the published report:

    Your challenge was to cite specific studies…. I will buy that this study did not document wholesale deaths (one was cited, but cause was not stated, so it doesn’t count.).

    The fact (since I’ve been there in Viet Nam) that we are not the ” first to be exposed to smoke, fire, explosions, or burning whatever” says nothing about whether such exposures are deliterious to our health –your notion of “first” has nothing to do with it! [Seems to me, that kind of has a quality of “junkifying” the science you are trying to sanctify.]

    You are quite correct — the report has nothing to do with U. S. air quality — is there something distinctly interesting about where the air was sampled? Your challenge was “air pollution” not “air polllution in the U. S. circa 2010”. Indeed, your lead-in was Donora, Pa, 1948.

    Your challenge was to cite specific studies — in this thread, I believe I’m the first to cite such. And in looking at the NEJM article (which I had not done prior to my original posting — but have since), I believe they state the statistical crieteria you require to make their claims “science” vs. “junk science”.

    I’m sorry, your response to me makes no claims to science…

  7. We need to get Steven D. Levitt (co-author of “Freakonomics”) involved in this. He seems to be able to cut through the fog/smog of issues to provide a logical analysis. I know that my thinking is colored by my political beliefs and I suspect many of the other commentators also are.

  8. Sounds like there’s more to the story than what’s been reported. These aren’t the first soldiers to be exposed to smoke, fire, explosions, or burning whatever. In any event, this report has nothing to do with U.S. air quality.

  9. I am on Junk Science’s side of sanity….

    However, on this issue, I would like to refer you to Science News, 8/13/11, page 8, “Damage to lungs seen in some vets”.

    While these soldiers aren’t dead yet, I suspect several may die earlier than would normally be expected. If nothing else, their quality of life has been severely and, apparently, permanently impaired.

  10. You do realize that you’re more likely to survive any automobile accident today than you would have in 1948? seat belts, air bags, and crumple zones allow people to walk away from wrecks that would have been fatal in 1948.

    Of course, your modern car will be totalled, but that’s a small price to pay.

  11. Prior comment should have said “old-age home” or “nursing home” rather than “old home.”

  12. I recall walking past some “environmentalists” once. The smell and pollution emitted from their persons was downright nauseating.

  13. To Ted Long
    The problem with the analysis in this article is that it does not normalize for differences in the age of the population. There has been a drastic aging of the population in Allegheny County, and Donora is moving toward ghost town status. Allegheny County has one of the most elderly populations in the US. That was not true in the 1940s. The analysis is itself junk science. An old home with clean air is going to have a higher death rate than a kindergarten with dirty air.

  14. Let’s see – the mortality rate hasn’t improved DESPITE the EPA having spent 100’s of billions of dollars.

    If it wasn’t for the FACT that government agencies typically spend 100’s of billions on solutions that actually make problems WORSE, this would be just one more example of an extremely long list of FAILURES.

  15. In answer to Garry on LA air quality. I lived there in the 70s. The air smelled really bad when coming down the El Cahon pass on return from the desert. I rode my motorbike thru there last year. Guess what? The air still smells like crap! I don’t care what the gov’t tells you, it’s just as bad as ever.

  16. Just thought I’d throw this out. I have lived in Hawai’i for 61 of my 70 yrs. 20 miles from an active volcano that has had sulphur and other gas emissions almost steady for 40 years Often you can taste the sulphur in the air and see it as Vog …….. so far no health problems. A study was done before and now a Senator wants $$ to do another one.

  17. Victoria Knox : “Public health studies show that today’s aging Baby Boomer population is far less healthy and capable of tasks of daily living, such as climbing stairs, than their parents and grandparents were at the same age. ”

    That’s an extraordinary claim that requires extraordinary evidence. Where are those studies, at least one, please ?

    Healthy life expectancy (ie no burden of disease) is a statistics that exists. And it’s increasing EVERY year, a fact that destroys your claim.

  18. Postulations, what ifs, and Pseudoscience!!!

    I am an older American, who is a conservationist that vehemently opposes the environmentalist movement, Someone who has seen the senseless destruction of our nations industrial base brought on by the environmentalist movement, with their Pseudoscience scare campaigns, based on what if postulations.

    The best example of this was the years of the environmentalist movements global warning scare, that now through real science has been totally debunked. You would think after these mindless crusaders were exposed as frauds they would hide in shame. Not so, they changed their movements lie’s from global warming to climate change, thinking this would absolve them from any responsibility for the fraud they had perpetrated on the public. You have to ask yourself was their another more sinister agenda hiding behind the global warming scare (fraud) campayne.

    If you by chance you were wondering what happened to the communists and socialists and assorted anti-capitalist groups after the fall of soviet union. They and their progeny became environmentalists with goal of the destruction of the USA.

  19. Victoria, I turn 60 next year. I ride a small electric scooter from my car over to the building I work in, because of my gout. I lift the scooter out of the car in the morning, and lift it back in after work. It weighs 85 pounds. I’m just a little middle-aged woman, and most of the young men that work around me wouldn’t even try to lift my scooter.
    And diabetes is not something you “catch” from how you live or what you eat, it is a genetic disease that was a valuable survival mechanism for our ancestors. A diabetic can just stop taking their glypicide or insulin, and work all day, at hard labor, without stopping.
    On top of that, there is no “junk” food. There are calories, most important. Then there are proteins, fats, and carbohydrates. As long as you are getting enough calories by using those three criteria, you’ll probably live as long as anyone else.

  20. Even assuming you are correct, (which I don’t), I’ll lay odds the lives saved and extended from the electricity generated from burning coal far out strip the lives lost.

    Hmm. Avg age around 50 without elec. Avg age jumps up to mid 60’s with mass production and distribution of electricity.

  21. I vividly remember our family trip into L.A. Calif. in 1968, and how our eyes stung and watered and how you could see the cloud of “smog” over the city.

    35 years later (2003) we drove into L.A. and the air was clean and clear, with nothing like the obvious effects of 35 years before.

    I believe that’s what the Clean Air Act was intended to accomplish – and like the NASA Apollo program – it succeeded. Both did exactly what they set out to do. Fini.

    We have to learn how to say “No. You are finished. Thanks for your great success in meeting your missions. Bye bye.”

  22. Some people have mentioned the average age of people today vs yesterday. The age issue actually gets thrown out of the equation because everybody dies, thats why the number of deaths per 100.00 is more relevant. What does matter as one person already stated is the actual cause of death. Did everyone then die from pollution and is everyone now dying from diabeties, of course not and those are the numbers that need to be sorted out to make proper comparisons. Then you can look at the ages of death from pollutions because death at 20 then from pollution is far different then death at 100 from pollution today.

  23. Mr. Malloy certainly needs to explain how he can compare mortality rates between the 1940s and today. Allegheny County was dirty everywhere in the late 40s not just in Donora. Today we are cleaner everywhere, not just Donora. Today we are the second oldest county in the entire USA. Only Miama Dade exceeds us in this respect. I suspect that the mortality rate today is affected by our average age versus 1948 and that this could easily counteract the dirty air effect in 1948. I have lived in Allegheny Co. since 1956. I have no idea how to make a better comparison. I agree that the EPA is out of control, but this argument needs further explanation and does not seem to prove his point.

  24. Victoria . . . not true . . . I am in my 60’s, I still ski, bike ride and road race cars. My parents at my age thought cutting the grass was a workout. Where I live most folks in their 50’s and up are very active. I see folks in their 70’s skiing and even playing hockey. You didn’t see that 30 years ago, everyone was old at 59.
    Today the average life expectancy is in the 80+ range. Fifty years ago it was less than 70. Many folks died before they were eligible for SS.
    While there is a problem with some segments of society . . . . I would suggest that this is a result of govt interference in their lives and crazy ideas like eliminating Physical Activity in Schools.

  25. And yet, the average lifespan of Americans continues to grow. THAT has an effect on mortality, Ms. Knox.

  26. I agree with Henry Bowman. Public health studies show that today’s aging Baby Boomer population is far less healthy and capable of tasks of daily living, such as climbing stairs, than their parents and grandparents were at the same age. Thanks to jobs that demand less physical labor, a car being considered a birthright from age 16 onward, less comsumption of home-cooked meals and more junk/processed food, etc., epidemic-levels of type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome will disable and kill more people than any other cause. You have to correct the data for this before you can tease out the effects of air pollution.

  27. The cleanest airin the USA in the last 100 years is NOW!!! The EPA are a gaggle of lyin scum enviro-whacks that want you to live like the UN mandates, stacked in little cubby-holes in large cities, riding public transport and eating vegetables.
    Enviro-loons are resonsible for much of the US decline in the last 40 years.

  28. I don’t doubt the basic premise but there is one statistic that could very easily skew the mortality rate, that is average age of the population. Like many American cities Donora may be getting older thus increasing the mortality rate.

  29. I guess I don’t understand how a mere comparison of raw mortality rates can be considered significant. Did anyone correct for modern-day causes such as high-speed vehicle casualties, drug gang warfare, and the like, when citing the modern-day county stats? Usually, serious economists (like John Lott did in More Guns, Less Crime) attempt to normalize for every other obvious difference between the two times or places being compared.

  30. And you sir, from one of the most liberal bastions of “education”, and beholding to the Federal grant trough… can’t admit something is wrong with your paradigm… it would show just how agenda driven the environmental left truly is.

  31. Prove it.

    You cannot. Which is why you have to resort to linking Mr. Milloy with Big Coal.

    I believe you are just a hack for Big Green.

  32. I made a similar argument to an EPA press spokesperson who announced EPA’s Stratospheric Ozone Protection rule reduced millions of skin cancer incidences per year. When I called to her attention that all cancer statistic charts showed virtually no per capita rate change in skin cancers (no matter what variety), she ultimately admitted this was what EPA’s modeling showed. When will Congress ever demand EPA show true, real world benefit to cost analyses which are required as part of all rule makings? It would be so easy for Congress to stop Jackson-gone-wild if it would for once force EPA to tangibly prove health and economic benefit for any proposed rule, and disallow it to be finalized until EPA does so. With EPA saving us $2 trillion per year in health care savings, who needs Obamacare?

  33. “…the mortality rate in Donora from 1945-48 was 26 percent lower than the 2006-08 death rate in surrounding Allegheny County, despite the fact that the air was far dirtier as measured by the Weather Bureau in 1949, when more than half the time it exceeded the current EPA standard by a factor of 14 or more.”

    How is that “cherry picking”? Seems like pretty straighforward stastics to me. I wonder, do these numbers actually show dirty air is better, or do they show a lack of correlation between mortality and air quality?

    And, Professor, you should proof your posts. Your reference to “…unbiassed studied…” would have earned me an F in pretty much any class I have taken.

    Ted Long
    No particular credentials

  34. A few weeks ago I was perusing the help wanted at the EPA. They were asking for a qualified “green” chemist. What is that? I’m kinda older and gray now, but didn’t think Roswell really had “green” people. The whole of EPA needs to be revamped. Several years ago they came up with new standards for diesel smoke based on a fallacious study at Kennecott in Utah and tried to correlate it to asthma, it was really an awful study. It has cost us billions. Where are they in the constitution, or “are you serious”?

  35. Steve,

    You’ve “cherry-picked” examples to arrive at conclusions that differ from more unbiassed studied by reputable medical groups and others. The case that air pollution resulting from coal burning is REAL and that it does give rise to medical problems. I accuse you of being motivated by efforts of those more interested in profits arising from current practices than in the health of our citizens!

    Dick Stein
    Goessmann Professor of Chemistry, Eneritus
    University of Massachusetts, Amherst

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