November 30, 2011

Coughing up the facts

Sen. Rand Paul claims asthmatics have nothing to fear from pollution

On Oct. 10, Sen. Rand Paul stood on the Senate floor to defend his resolution blocking the Environmental Protection Agency’s Cross-State Air Pollution Rule under the Clean Air Act. The EPA regulations — first proposed under George W. Bush’s administration — seek to limit the amount of nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide emissions from power plants that blow downwind from one state into another.

Calling the regulations “job-killing” and the “hysterical” work of “environmental extremists” in the Obama administration (using each of those phrases at least nine times), Paul claimed this rule is one of the EPA’s many unnecessary overreaches that would wind up hurting the economy.

Paul’s resolution was defeated by a bipartisan 41-56 vote, with six Republicans voting against it. Though the outcome was not necessarily surprising, some of the statements Paul made in defense of his resolutions raised eyebrows among his colleagues and medical professionals.

Contrary to the near universal belief of scientists and doctors, Paul suggests that air pollution has either no relationship with asthma, or might actually prevent it.

“If we don’t talk reasonably and rationally about the facts,” Paul said on the Senate floor, “if we don’t look at statistics of what has been happening to control emissions, we’re not going to get anywhere.”

Following this plea for facts and science, Paul presented statistics from the California Department of Public Health showing declining emissions of air pollutants and a rising population of people with asthma.

“So if you were looking at this chart, you would say, ‘Hmm, maybe emissions declining is inversely proportional to asthma,’” Paul said. “Or maybe they’re not related at all, but they definitely aren’t proportional.

“Interestingly, asthma is worst in countries that have the lowest incidents of pollution. And asthma is actually lowest in the countries that have the highest evidence of pollution.”

The Associated Press fact checked Paul, claiming he relied on “creative sourcing and pseudoscience.” They cited a California public health official who said Paul’s conclusion from their statistics “has no basis,” as well as the National Institutes of Health’s claim that “recent findings have conclusively demonstrated a link between asthma and air pollution.”

Dr. Ronald L. Morton, a pediatric pulmonologist at the University of Louisville’s Childhood Asthma Care and Education Center, tells LEO Weekly that Paul’s conclusions don’t match what he sees in his work and research in the field.

“There’s a lot of evidence out there showing a strong association on asthma control in children with air pollution,” Morton says. “I take care of a lot of children with asthma, and I see the effects of particulate air pollution on lung function, increased emergency department visits, its association with decreased response to (inhalers).

“The epidemiologic evidence is there showing a connection between particulate air pollution, nitrogen dioxide and different types of ozone and antioxidants that can make asthma control worse.”

The EPA agrees, claiming that this new regulation will not only prevent 400,000 aggravated asthma attacks per year, but also 13,000-34,000 premature deaths, 15,000 non-fatal heart attacks, 19,000 hospital visits, and 1.8 million work and school absences. The American Lung Association supports the new rule, citing the same statistics and its ability to improve the lives of those with asthma.

Sen. Paul specifically called out the ALA, charging them with being bought off by the EPA. “The EPA actually gave the ALA $5 million, so I think their objectivity has been somewhat tainted.”

Paul Billings, the American Lung Association’s vice president of national policy and advocacy, tells LEO Weekly that the senator’s accusations have no merit.

“The ALA wins competitive grants from the EPA and (Centers for Disease Control) and other federal agencies,” Billings says. “And most of the grants are for things like helping kids and parents better manage children’s asthma, helping make schools more asthma friendly for kids dealing with asthma triggers. So his charge is baseless.”

Billings notes that it is not uncommon for politicians to attack the ALA when they advocate for public policy, just as former Kentucky Sen. Wendell Ford did when they pushed the Clinton administration to prevent tobacco companies from marketing to children in the 1990s.

“When you work on issues like clean air and tobacco,” he says, “you end up sometimes where people who disagree with you, when they can’t win arguments on the facts, attack the messenger.”

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., cited the ALA in his opposition to Paul’s resolution on the Senate floor, saying pollution blowing into Tennessee from Kentucky would put the elderly and children at risk. Contrary to Paul’s assertions, Alexander also said the EPA rule will help protect manufacturing and tourism jobs in Tennessee.

“There’s a lot I admire about our neighbors in Kentucky, including their two distinguished United States senators,” Alexander said. “But I don’t want their dirty air blowing into Tennessee.

“Nine million people a year come to see the Great Smoky Mountains, not the Great Smoggy Mountains.”

Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois added that if Paul’s resolution passed, “Sadly, the people who will go to work are those who work in emergency rooms, those who make nebulizers for those suffering from asthma, people who make oxygen tanks.”

The effect of the new EPA rules on Kentucky could be significant, especially in Louisville, which commonly rates among the worst cities in the country for asthmatics.

Just across the Ohio River from Shawnee Park in west Louisville sits Duke Energy’s R. Gallagher power plant, which annually emits 26,903 tons of sulfur dioxide and 3,088 tons of nitrogen oxides. Further west, plants in Indiana and Illinois near the Kentucky border annually emit approximately 200,000 tons of sulfur dioxide.

But according to Rand Paul, there is nothing to fear.

“If you listen to the hysterics, you would think the Statue of Liberty will shortly be underwater, and the polar bears are all drowning, and that we’re dying from pollution,” Paul said. “It’s absolutely and utterly untrue.”