"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

The Truth About Ozone

As the weather heats up and summer dog days approach, we'll soon be hearing more about the dangers of ozone in our air, as is the case every year.

Hence it's a good time to read the excellent article on the real health risks of ozone, by Competitive Enterprise Institute fellow Joel Schwartz, from the April issue of Environment & Climate News (which this author serves as senior editor), published by The Heartland Institute.

Schwartz examines all the claims of health risks from atmospheric ozone, and finds that each one has been exaggerated far beyond the scientific reality. In each case, the evidence all shows that ozone poses little or no risk at all to human life. It is simply a Boogie Man used by Luddites and other enemies of freedom to demonize modern technology.

For instance, Schwartz investigates the realities of asthma incidence, to test the claims that ozone causes asthma attacks. He finds that the evidence shows that there is no connection whatever:

The prevalence of asthma has nearly doubled in America during the past 25 years, at the same time levels of ozone and other air pollutants sharply declined nationwide. Emergency room visits for asthma are at their lowest in July and August--when ozone levels are at their highest. A government-funded study of thousands of children in California reported that children who grew up in the highest-ozone areas had a 30 percent lower risk of developing asthma, when compared with children in low-ozone areas.

While ozone can trigger asthma attacks, the effect is small. According to estimates by the California Air Resources Board (CARB), eliminating virtually all human-caused ozone in California--where millions of people live in areas with by far the highest ozone levels in the country--would reduce asthma-related emergency room (ER) visits by only 1.8 percent.

Schwartz masterfully demolishes the other claims about health problems caused by ozone, and points out that these false claims are repeatedly made by supposedly credible sources:

Unfortunately, medical experts are often key players in the exaggeration of air pollution's health effects. Scientists, regulators, activists, and journalists continue to cite the [2002] CHS [Children's Health Study] study as evidence that air pollution increases people's risk of developing asthma [the study tested effects of ozone levels far higher than are present anywhere in the United States, and the reports of it suppressed contradictory evidence the study found showing that high ozone levels were associated with a 30 percent lower risk of asthma in children, which should certainly have been the main point that people took from it].

For example:

  • A researcher from the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins asserted in the introduction to a recent Sierra Club report, "Traffic presents a unique public health threat" including "children's asthma rates occurring at epidemic proportions."
  • After the American Lung Association gave Tarrant County (Fort Worth), Texas a failing grade for ozone in 2003, the president of a local branch of the Tarrant County Medical Society asserted, "It means we can anticipate a worsening of an already epidemic asthma problem."
  • In a recent commentary on air pollution and asthma in the Journal of the American Medical Association, two prominent air pollution health researchers state, "Evidence exists that air pollution may have contributed to the increasing prevalence of asthma." The evidence they cite is the CHS asthma study.
  • When the CHS asthma study was released, the director of the pediatric asthma program at the University of California at Davis asserted, "Sacramento is a very high ozone area, so [the CHS asthma study] is going to be very relevant to us."
These lies are important because they are being used to justify expensively stupid, intrusive government policies that have no positive effect at all:

None of this would matter if reducing air pollution were free. But Americans will have to spend more than $100 billion per year--about $1,000 per household--just to attain the current eight-hour ozone standard. That money--or more correctly, the labor, capital, and know-how that money represents--would otherwise go to health care, food, housing, entertainment, education, and other things Americans value. Instead, for this stupendous sum we will eliminate at best a few tenths of a percent of all respiratory disease and distress.

Health is the main justification for the nation's costly air quality management system, but reducing ozone would rank near the bottom of any rational list of priorities for improving Americans' health.

So, when commenters jump on this site and cite "evidence" showing that ozone does indeed have deleterious health effects, and when you hear "experts" on television telling us about how dangerous atmospheric ozone is to us all, you shall know exactly how to respond:

"BUNK!"


S. T. Karnick is senior editor for the Heartland Institute and writes frequently for numerous national publications.

11 comments:

Tlaloc said...

"Hence it's a good time to read the excellent article on the real health risks of ozone, by Competitive Enterprise Institute fellow Joel Schwartz, from the April issue of Environment & Climate News (which this author serves as senior editor), published by The Heartland Institute."

Nice sheep skin coat you put on that wolf. So now when we bandy about how corporate interests buy fake science that supports their goals we KNOW you know what I am talking about.

This does go a long way to explain the global warming denial around here, though.

James Elliott said...

"It is simply a Boogie Man used by Luddites and other enemies of freedom to demonize modern technology."

Um, hyperbolic, much?

tbmbuzz said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
James Elliott said...

"Unfortunately, medical experts are often key players in the exaggeration of air pollution's health effects."

There's one problem with Schwartz's article and your analysis: Ozone makes up only a small portion of the particulate matter in air pollution. Is ozone a convenient boogie man? Absolutely. Just listen to the sound of the word. It's easy and sloppy to use ozone as shorthand for all air pollution, but it is equally sloppy to use "debunking" of ozone-specific concerns as refutations for air pollution.

Of course, what matters intellectual honesty when you can throw in zingers about people supporting scientific, evidence-based conclusions because they are Luddites and... wait for it... HATE FREEDOM. DUN DUN DUHHHH!

S. T. Karnick said...

Neither Joel nor I debunks all efforts to halt air pollution. On the contrary, we both gratefully acknowledge that the Clean Air Act has done a great job of cleaning up the nation's air, especially in urban areas where it was most needed. What we both object to, and which you too should decry, are policies that are costly, intrusive, unnecessary, and, most of all, do not achieve appreciably cleaner air. Ozone limitations are one of many such policies, and ozone is indeed nothing more than a Boogie Man for Luddites.

The places most successful at curbing pollution are those that are most technologically advanced. Suppressing economic growth and concomitant technological advance is a surefire way to make pollution problems worse. No one should want that.

James Elliott said...

No?

"In a recent commentary on air pollution and asthma in the Journal of the American Medical Association, two prominent air pollution health researchers state, "Evidence exists that air pollution may have contributed to the increasing prevalence of asthma." The evidence they cite is the CHS asthma study."

This is especially telling because the CHS report did not use ozone levels as the sole measure of air pollution. Distortion by omission is much like a lie.

James Elliott said...

Even if we accept the premise as complete and irrefutable (which no self-respecting student of intellectual honesty should on the strength of one meta-analysis), the conclusions are more far-reaching than the data calls for. Ozone has far more deleterious environmental effects (see warming, global) than just possible effects on human biology. Questioning one aspect of the conclusions drawn about ozone does not debunk all of them, nor does the conclusion drawn at the end of the paper take these other factors into account.

While Schwartz correctly points out that it is always useful to challenge consensus and status quo and to continually question them, he hardly serves up a silver bullet for all concerns related to ozone, or air pollution in general.

Tom Van Dyke said...

"the reports...suppressed contradictory evidence the study found showing that high ozone levels were associated with a 30 percent lower risk of asthma in children, which should certainly have been the main point that people took from it."

Heheh. If I recall, the seminal study on second-hand smoke showed that kids regularly exposed to it grew up with lower incidences of lung cancer.

S. T. Karnick said...

That was by no means the only example of distortion cited in Joel Schwartz's article, and the health researchers in question did indeed cite the ozone study, so both Mr. Schwartz's observation and its implications remain corrct.

Once again, I should like to point out that neither Joel nor I debunks all efforts to reduce air pollution. The question is what policies are worth the costs. In the case of ozone, they are definitely not so.

tbmbuzz said...

There's one problem with Schwartz's article and your analysis: Ozone makes up only a small portion of the particulate matter in air pollution.



Schwartz' statement actually is:

The prevalence of asthma has nearly doubled in America during the past 25 years, at the same time levels of ozone and other air pollutants sharply declined nationwide. (emphasis mine)

The gist of Karnick's and Schwartz' argument is why waste billions of dollars on a non-solution? (Yet again, see Kyoto Theft...errrrr.....Protocol). Wouldn't it make more sense to find the real cause of increased asthma occurrences to begin with? I suspect it's something as simple as the increased tendency of America's youth to overweight and less exercise.

By the way, ozone is a gas not a particulate.

tbmbuzz said...

Ozone has far more deleterious environmental effects (see warming, global) than just possible effects on human biology.

Not quite. Although ozone is considered a greenhouse gas, its quantity as a percentage of all greenhouse gases is miniscule. Doubling the amount of industrial ozone or eliminating it completely from the troposphere would have zero effect on atmospheric warming.

This is not to say that ozone in sufficient quantities does not have a deleterious effect on biology. It is a corrosive gas and of course has an effect on both plant and animal life. But the key here is its concentration in the lower atmosphere; it has been declining for the past two decades in the U.S. because of the Clean Air Act and presumably in the other advanced developed countries, which after all are the only ones that can afford to spend on environmental controls. By all means, let's maintain the current Clean Air Act standards. I just see no need or beneficial return to spend billions and billions at the margins.