Mark Twain once observed that he was not bothered by all of the things people didn’t know but bothered by all of the things they knew that just weren’t so. That observation applies perfectly to environmentalists who continue to claim that air pollution is causing an increase in the incidence of asthma.
Recently the head of the Urban Air Initiative made such a claim in an opinion piece—Less Oil, Less Asthma— and in the process advocated increased use of ethanol as the solution. It is unclear whether the head of this organization knows a lot of things that just aren’t so or knows the facts but is shilling for ethanol because of benefits the ethanol lobby provides his organization. If it is the latter, it is a clear example of the Baptist and Bootlegger alliance. In either case, he doesn’t want to be confused with facts.
The facts on asthma and air pollution are very clear. High levels of air pollution can trigger asthma incidences. As the levels of air pollution have declined, identifying the threshold that triggers an incident has become more speculative and the alleged relationship less credible.
The Environmental Almanac published by the Pacific Research Institute contains data showing the tremendous improvement in air quality and the dramatic decrease in air pollution emissions between 1970 and 2013—the last issue of the Almanac—59%. Between 1980 and 2008, ozone emissions declined 27% and particulate emissions 38%. The number of ozone non-attainment areas, according to EPA declined from 113 in 1997 to 31 in 2011.
If air pollution emissions were the main driver of asthma incidence, it should be the case that as emissions declined and air quality improved, asthma incidences should have declined also. That has not been the case. Data from the National Institute of Asthma and Infectious Diseases shows that asthma has been increasing among all age groups over the past decade.
According to the Mayo Clinic “it isn’t clear why some people get asthma and others don’t, but it’s probably due to a combination of environmental and genetic (inherited) factors.” Mayo cites the following as asthma triggers, which are different from person to person and can include:
- Airborne allergens, such as pollen, animal dander, mold, cockroaches and dust mites
- Respiratory infections, such as the common cold
- Physical activity (exercise-induced asthma)
- Cold air
- Air pollutants and irritants, such as smoke
- Certain medications, including beta blockers, aspirin, ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others) and naproxen (Aleve)
- Strong emotions and stress
This list of triggers goes a long way in explaining why the reductions in air pollution emissions have not led to a comparable decrease in asthma.
As for the claim that increasing the volume of ethanol in gasoline would be environmentally beneficial and contribute to a reduction in the incidences of asthma, it is pure bunk!
In the late 1980s, before reauthorization of the Clean Air Act in 1990, the oil and auto industries engaged in one of the largest environmental research projects undertaken involving fuels and vehicle systems. The goal was to identify the most cost-effective ways to achieve lower tailpipe emissions. One of the results was that lower emission levels could be achieved without increasing the use of ethanol. Congress ignored that research finding because it needed farm lobby support to secure passage of the Clean Air Act, which actually contains a formula for reformulated gasoline.
Since then drivers have been paying a higher price for gasoline so that corn farmers and ethanol manufacturers can be subsidized to the tune of several billion dollars annually. The scientific literature is replete with studies showing that ethanol at best has small environmental benefits but most likely they are negative. The adverse impact of ethanol on small engines and even fuel systems in premier vehicles like BMW and Lexus are beyond question.
Proponents of increasing the volume of ethanol above the current 10% are either ignorant of the effects on vehicles or else their pursuit of increased wealth has blinded them to the adverse impacts on others, especially those who can ill afford the impact higher food prices—the elderly, low income families, and more than 1 billion people who subsist on less than $2 a day.