Global Science Report is a feature from the Center for the Study of Science, where we highlight one or two important new items in the scientific literature or the popular media. For broader and more technical perspectives, consult our monthly “Current Wisdom.”
A pre-print of a soon to be published paper in the Journal of Asthma and Clinical Immunology describes a study conducted by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center making this provocative finding:
Taking the United States as a whole, living in an urban neighborhood is not associated with increased asthma prevalence.
It’s a radical finding. The study upends more than half a century of research that assumed outdoor air pollution in cities was to blame for higher asthma rates—a hypothesis repeatedly used by EPA regulators to justify the agency’s regulations.
Perrone goes on to explain:
For years, environmentalists and regulators have cited childhood asthma as an excuse for ever-stricter pollution rules. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), for instance, uses asthma as a pretext for nearly every “clean air” regulation issued since the 1970s.
But what if the assumed link between air pollution and childhood asthma doesn’t actually exist?
New research questions the long-held wisdom on asthma and air pollution, casting doubt over the scientific basis for EPA’s expansive regulatory agenda….
The study still points to air pollution as a cause for asthma, only it’s indoor air pollution—think second hand smoke, rodents, mold, etc.—that may be the main culprit.
This counters EPA’s asthma pretext for “clean air” regulations, as well as their regulations on climate change.
The latter was revealed in a 2009 memo recently obtained via FOIA by Chris Horner of the Competitive Enterprise Institute. In the memo, the EPA talks climate change strategy and discusses the perceived effectiveness of linking health impacts (e.g., “respiratory illness”) to climate change [emphasis added]:
Polar ice caps and the polar bears have become the climate change “mascots,” if you will, and personify the challenges was have in making this issue real for many Americans. Most Americans will never see a polar ice cap, nor will most have the chance to see a polar bear in its natural habitat. Therefore, it is easy to detach from the seriousness of the issue. Unfortunately, climate change in the abstract is an increasingly—and consistently—unpersuasive argument to make. However, if we shift from making this about the polar caps and [sic] about our neighbor with respiratory illness we can potentially bring this issue home to many Americans. As we do so, we must allow the human health argument to take center stage.
This strategy was clearly adopted.
For example, in announcing EPA’s proposed restrictions on carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants, Administrator McCarthy’s comments were littered with health references, including her opening remarks:
About a month ago, I took a trip to the Cleveland Clinic. I met a lot of great people, but one stood out—even if he needed to stand on a chair to do it. Parker Frey is 10 years old. He’s struggled with severe asthma all his life. His mom said despite his challenges, Parker’s a tough, active kid—and a stellar hockey player.
But sometimes, she says, the air is too dangerous for him to play outside. In the United States of America, no parent should ever have that worry.
That’s why EPA exists. Our job, directed by our laws, reaffirmed by our courts, is to protect public health and the environment. Climate change, fueled by carbon pollution, supercharges risks not just to our health, but to our communities, our economy, and our way of life. That’s why EPA is delivering on a vital piece of President Obama's Climate Action Plan.”
Later she added, "For the sake of our families’ health and our kids’ future, we have a moral obligation to act on climate." She went on to explain, "This is not just about disappearing polar bears or melting ice caps. This is about protecting our health and our homes." And seemingly for good measure: "As a bonus, in 2030 we’ll cut pollution that causes smog and soot 25 percent more than if we didn’t have this plan in place. The first year that these standards go into effect, we’ll avoid up to 100,000 asthma attacks and 2,100 heart attacks—and those numbers go up from there."
In light of the new Johns Hopkin study, McCarthy’s remarks are questionable as scientific support for these hyperbolic statements is fast receding.
John Perrone hits the nail on the head with his conclusion:
This is science the EPA cannot ignore. If the agency is truly interested in “following the science,” it should spend more time addressing real public health threats than imposing costly rules based on dubious science that may only make us poorer and sicker.
We don’t find the Hopkins study at all surprising. Smoky, confined indoor environments around the world are associated with major health issues. Why should it be any different here?
Keet, C.A., et al., 2015. Neighborhood poverty, urban residence, race/ethnicity, and asthma: Rethinking the inner-city asthma epidemic. Journal of Asthma and Clinical Immunology , in press.