Bjorn Lomborg’s reach exceeds his grasp

Bjorn Lomborg doesn’t know toxicology or medicine, he’s a statistician. He has a Ph D in Political Science.

Although some might applaud Lomborg’s emphasis on indoor pollution in the 3rd world as a toxic air problem, it is his mistake to assert it is an important health problem. I might seem to be cynical or nihilistic, because indoor air pollution in the 3rd world is a bad thing to consider since they burn wood and dung in unventilated housing, but no one has done decent studies on indoor air pollution or outdoor air pollution that really prove toxicity or lethality.

Indoor air pollution claims may be just as unimportant and just as much the result of bad public health epidemiology as the claims of outdoor air pollution.

Sure indoor air quality is worse in many places than outdoor–that’s to be expected. However, no one has any proof that indoor air pollution is killing anyone. Moreover when indoor air pollution is burdensome–people open the windows and air out the place.

However, Lomborg doesn’t understand that we don’t have good toxicology to show that anyone dies of air pollution–indoor or outdoor, just epidemiology studies on outdoor pollution that harvest the variations of death rates and match them up with some monitoring information of the outside air, then assert the deaths mean something when they mean nothing.

As for the claims more recently made about indoor pollution–again, the studies are data mining exercises that are in their infancy–The indoor air studies are pathetically uncontrolled and unconvincing and pretty limited.

The indoor pollution studies may attempt to attribute indoor air pollution to deaths of all kinds, but, just as in outdoor air pollution, we still have no plausible physiological or pathological mechanism of acute or even chronic deaths. Air pollution is handled by the lungs pretty well. Ambient indoor and outdoor air pollution is not toxic and sure isn’t lethal, except in the minds of the charlatans at the EPA and their paid researchers and policy makers.

http://nypost.com/2014/04/21/the-deadliest-environmental-threat-its-not-global-warming/

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15 responses to “Bjorn Lomborg’s reach exceeds his grasp

  1. Willis Eschenbach

    Cap’n Milloy, I rarely disagree with you, but this time I have to. The statement that “Ambient indoor and outdoor air pollution is not toxic …” simply isn’t true for indoor pollution in the third world.

    The problem in the third world is the smoke from burning wood and dung to cook food over a “three-stone” fire with no chimney. The toxic properties of the particulate matter, combustion products, and partially burnt and unburnt hydrocarbons in that smoke are well studied and well established. While rarely lethal, they certainly contribute to the overall heath burden that lies heavily on the poor of the planet. Lungs weakened by a lifetime of such exposure do poorly when pneumonia comes visiting, for example.

    The other issue is simple irritation from that smoke. The combination of chemicals and particulate matter in the eyes leads to trachoma, which I’ve personally observed in smoky huts around the planet.

    Most of the sufferers are older women who have spent a lifetime leaning over a dung or wood fire and breathing the smoke.

    I can assure you, therefore, that spending such a lifetime in the midst of that mix of black carbon, particulate matter, combustions products such as NOx, and partially burnt and unburnt hydrocarbons, is definitely not conducive to good health for the women of the poor countries.

    My best to you, and my eternal thanks for your marvelous site. It is one of my daily resources, always amazing, always entertaining.

    w.

    PS—You’d think they’d just put chimneys on the stoves, you can make them out of clay or roofing iron or a bunch of cheap materials … turns out cultural traditions die hard.

  2. cap’n mlloy is not in the mix here, it is dr. dunn.

    i know exactly what you are referencing, but one must always recognize that the science depends on the proof of the pudding.

    we might consider leaning over a wood burning stove to certainly be the cause of disease, however the endpoint being used is death, my friend.

    You and i might argue with good reason that leaning over wood burning or offal burning is going to be irritating and cause bronchits–that’s not what the lomborg hypothesis is–his hypothesis is that it contributes to deaths.

    You might say–with good reason, chronic bronchitis from these exposures could kill, but again, consider the endpoint these people use–death.

    Science is not about aesthetics and disease or medical problems on the margins, these poeple, including the poorly informed lomborg, say it’s killing people–and that is just not true.

    I am not saying it is not irritating, or a problem or deplorable–I am saying that Lomborg has no basis for claiming that indoor air pollution kills at any particular rate.

    Your objection to indoor air pollution is well accepted–we are talking here about something else–death–premature deaths.

    You might consider this a fine point but it is the point.

    Thanks for you comments.

    Milloy is not the web keeper–he has taken a job with an industry concern and asked me to play.

    I am a 40 year emergency physician who is not demented. Also a lawyer and well versed in epidemiological and toxicological matters for various reasons.

    thanks for your kind comments and courteous points.

    I hope i responded in kind to your cogent comments.

    John Dale Dunn MD JD

  3. Aye, Dunn. Not good or healthy, but not necessarily deadly.

  4. Holy cow, Willis, are you the climate guy i know and respect as a wonderful investigator and researcher, a guy who gave some great lectures in the past for climate conferences???

    if so , stand by what i said and salute your for your achievements and you extrarordinary accomplishments, in my somewhat ignoble opinion.

  5. What is the number of dead people per 100.000 after 70 years exposure, due to fireplace smoke?
    And the exposure would have to be constant for 70 years, not intermittent like it really is?
    And what kind of wood and dung?
    In these places is this reflected in the life expectancy of male/female?
    In these poor places they will probably die of something else long before fire place smoke could kill them?

    • I think the right way to put it would be to use the words “Health Risk” (number of people per 100.000 after 70 year exposure) getting lung cancer or some other lung related disease.
      Fire place smoke is not in itself lethal, but if it causes lung cancer it’s the cancer that is going to kill you?

      • And it’s the level of the health care system where you live that decides the actual number of deaths from the disease.

        I think there might be some indoor accident related incidents where people fall and become unconscious over the fire place. If they are alone that would be a 100% fire place related death?

  6. I usually agree with you, but having worked in Africa, South Asia and Indonesia I cannot agree with your skepticism about the adverse health impacts of indoor pollution.

    The World Bank study of the adverse effects of indoor pollution in Nepal is very convincing. Indoor pollution comes mainly from wood or kerosene used for cooking and heating.

    In most of the dozen or so developing countries where I have worked since 1970 chronic respiratory disease is a leading cause of death. While cigarette smoking is probably the main culprit cooking fumes and smoke also contribute.

  7. Here is the endpoint, to emphasize–the WHO and other public health officials doing ambient outdoor pollution, claim that people are dying–within one day or two from exposure to small particle pollution, and they just don’t clearly explain the problem with their methodology. .

    The studies on indoor pollution track on the same lines and have the same bad methodology. I will try to explain, and grant any commenter the right to say that smoke/soot/and other criteria pollutants can be irritating and even cause bronchitis. i won’t say that cancer is a result of small particle exposure at ambient levels. Cig smoking is different by an order of magnitude as explained below. .

    The studies are death data dredges, not medical investigations, and they harvest increased death rate days as a measure of deaths from air pollution.

    they don’t count deaths in the long run, they just count acute deaths.

    You and I know that counting deaths against a daily exposure to ambient air pollution can’t be a death study that is looking at the impact of whatever chronic bronchitis or even cancer may result from indoor air pollution in the third world. These people are just counting death certificates and looking for correlations. Data mining in the natural variability of the daily death rate. They even lie when they use the phrase premature deaths–if a 90 year old lady dies on a day when the rate is positively correlated to the pollution–that’s a premature death for the study–how do you like that. .

    So let’s talk cigarettes. Milloy always points this out. The small particle load of inhaled smoke of cigarettes is more than 1200 mics per cubic meter, and cig smokers ain’t going down for pulling on a Marlboro or one of them nasty French cigarettes. I am still alive and well in spite of smoking everything from the Frenchies to Pall Malls. My father smoked from the time he was 14 to his death from a non pulmonary cause at age 75. My mother lived with him and is still alive at 93. You say that’s just an anecdote–however anecdotes sometimes show evidence that disproves the hypthesis. Cigarette smoke increases the rate of lung cancer by 900 percent in the 1950s studies, but smoking less than 10 a day, brit physicians studied lived long than the controls–no doubt the healthy worker socioeconomic/eductation effect.

    Make sense?. You may say LA smog or the inside of a 3rd world shack is irritating and unpleasant, but toxicology is not about the incremental aesthetics, its about measurable negative effects.

    And, to clarify a point made, Milloy is still the owner of the web site junk science.com, he just can’t be involved in the day to day writing and research–it is and always will be his baby, and he still has the Pink Slip and the keys. i Just fill up the space with research and commentary along with a fine chemist and experiienced compliance man for industry, Bob Greene. .

  8. I applaud your rigour, John, in that you are skeptical about every claim and want to see the numbers. I also appreciate that there are many people with direct experience of indoor air pollution in developing countries for whom the evidence is pretty clear – even though they don`t have the published studies. I think the issue is that we just don`t publish studies on some things, especially when they are happening in developing countries and we can point to equivalent evidence from elsewhere.

    For example, I don`t think there is too much argument about the health impacts of the London smogs, which were successfully addressed with banning of certain cooking and heating fuels (chiefly coal and wood) in urban areas. Although this was an outdoor pollution issue (because we had chimneys) the cause was still the high concentrations of smoke particulates (caused in this case by stagnant air in the heavy fogs which some UK cities still get). To suggest that similar levels of smoke particulates indoors from open cooking fires would also have a health effect is quite a valid assumption, even though to date we don`t have the data.

    I think Lomborg here is doing what he has always done – copying the hyperbole of the the alarmists to make his point. To say that indoor air pollution is deadlier than global warming is quite supportable (based on the lack of deadly effects of global warming) and most of Lomborg`s efforts have been to focus on those aspects of the environment where an investment would actually have a positive impact, especially in the developing world.

    The title of your post is quite accurate, but only in the sense that Lomborg has often been explicit about the fact that he uses hyperbolic statements to draw attention to the issue he is raising. In his original book – The Skeptical Environmentalist – he made it clear that he was using this approach to parody the alarmist claims. He has made a good name for himself doing this so i don`t suppose he is going to change soon!

  9. Willis Eschenbach

    john1282 | April 24, 2014 at 12:01 am

    Holy cow, Willis, are you the climate guy i know and respect as a wonderful investigator and researcher, a guy who gave some great lectures in the past for climate conferences???

    if so , stand by what i said and salute your for your achievements and you extrarordinary accomplishments, in my somewhat ignoble opinion.

    Thank you most kindly, sir.

    john1282 | April 23, 2014 at 10:58 pm | Reply

    cap’n mlloy is not in the mix here, it is dr. dunn.

    i know exactly what you are referencing, but one must always recognize that the science depends on the proof of the pudding.

    we might consider leaning over a wood burning stove to certainly be the cause of disease, however the endpoint being used is death, my friend.

    Science is not about aesthetics and disease or medical problems on the margins, these poeple, including the poorly informed lomborg, say it’s killing people–and that is just not true.

    I am not saying it is not irritating, or a problem or deplorable–I am saying that Lomborg has no basis for claiming that indoor air pollution kills at any particular rate.

    Your objection to indoor air pollution is well accepted–we are talking here about something else–death–premature deaths.

    You might consider this a fine point but it is the point.

    Thanks, John. Actually, I was not responding to Lomborgs statement regarding deaths from indoor pollution, which in truth I have not read.

    Instead, I was responding to your statement about indoor pollution, viz:

    “Ambient indoor and outdoor air pollution is not toxic …”

    In Lomborg’s statement, as you say, the endpoint may well be death. But in your statement, the endpoint is not death, it is toxicity. And smoke from burning dung and wood is clearly toxic, which was my point.

    Finally, like many other things, indoor pollution in general doesn’t lead directly to death. Instead, it forms another part of the overall health burden of the poor. This is generally composed of a variety of things that likely don’t kill us, malaria and dysentery and various fevers and intestingal parasites and the like.

    And while none of them generally kills most people, it is the combined weight of them that is a problem. As I said, a lifetime of breathing smoke makes you more vulnerable when pneumonia comes calling.

    So although (as you point out) the cause listed on the death certificate may indeed say “pneumonia”, the toxic effects of the smoke are assuredly in the mix as well. And while a lifetime of breathing smoke may not be the “cause of death” (which as a doctor I’m sure you’re aware is a vague concept even at best), it can most certainly be an important contributory factor to someone dying prematurely from lung disease.

    However, and again as a doctor you must be aware, statistics on such matters are hard to come by even in the developed world. Look at the amount of statistics we had to amass to show that smoking cigarettes leads in some people to lung cancer … and we have no reason to assume that breathing smoke from dung is any better for your lungs than breathing smoke from cigarettes.

    So while as you correctly point out, the solid statistical basis for linking a lifetime of inhaling the fumes from burning shit to illness or premature deaths may not exist, I don’t think that’s a reason to declare flatly that “indoor pollution is not toxic.” That was your statement, and I fear that it is simply not supported by the evidence.

    Best regards, and thanks for the work that you do on this excellent site,

    w.

  10. 2.8 billion cook with dung and 4.3 million, per year, are killed because of the fumes.

    That is a rate of 1 per 674.

    99.9%, in any given year, will NOT die because of the fumes.

    Malnutrition kills 7.6 million per year and about half are kids.

    What is a ‘pre-mature’ death?
    How do you know when some one is supposed to die?

  11. Premature deaths in a proper inquiry are deaths prior to an actuarially established life expectancy–not very easy to do in the 3rd world.

    However you could just use general tables for the pop–for example the older you are, the higher your life expectancy.

    In order to establish someone was killed by fumes you need to show a plausible physiological, pathological, or toxicological mechanism, but epidemiologist don’t bother, they just find exposed populations and look for correlations between an exposure line and a higher death rate–also not too easy.

    • I’ve seen that dead people being used again and again in different studies, income/class, food, smoking, pollution from traffic, etc etc.. Most of them seam to be policy based, an political agenda basically looking for basis for more regulation or taxes.

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