Most Toxic Air In America—Big Deal (Yawn)


New York and California have the most toxic air pollution in America according to the EPA. But how bad is it really? Not so bad, according to Joel Schwartz, writing over at TCSDaily. According to Schwartz, the EPA calculates that "breathing 1999 pollution levels over a lifetime gives New York State residents an average cancer risk of 68 per million people. For Californians the risk is 66 per million, and the national average is 42 per million." Sounds terrible, right?

Not so fast, says Schwartz. He points out:

About one-third of all Americans–330,000 per million–will develop cancer sometime during their lifetimes. On a nationwide basis, EPA's estimates therefore imply that only one of every 2,400 cancers (0.042%) is caused by air pollution. While it would be wonderful if no one contracted cancer for any reason, it is clear that reducing air pollution will do virtually nothing to reduce the total burden of this terrible disease.

Of course, how you look at air pollution cancer risks depends on whether you see the glass as half full or half empty. Even at one of every 2,400 cancers, air pollution would still be responsible for more than 500 cancers per year nationwide. We would all choose to avoid these cancers if we could, and in a world of infinite resources we would. But even if we could eliminate all cancer-causing air pollutants for the unlikely sum of just $10 billion per year, that would still amount to a cost of $20 million per cancer case avoided. At that price, reducing air pollution would have to rank pretty low on any list of priorities for cancer prevention.

Of course, cancer's not the only thing. Air pollution looks ugly and exacerbates (but does not cause) asthma.

Whole thing here.

Disclosure: I enjoy talking with Joel Schwartz (we sat next to one other at a policy dinner last month). I assume that I must own some minor amount of stock in some companies or other that cause some kind of air pollution, but I can't think of them off the top of my head and I'm not going to look them up now.

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  1. I love the candid disclosure. Really. It was amusing. Your honesty and forthrightness are appreciated.

  2. It’s those goddam cigars. To improve the atmosphere, try a better smoke.

  3. What do the corresponding asthma stats look like? I understand that we have ruled out a causitive connection, but some numbers would help us get a quantitative handle on what you really mean by aggravation. I am glad we know what causes asthma now. Hadn’t realized that.

    This debunking of the hysteria (read non-hysteria) over airborn carcinogens is an excercise in . . .

  4. One third of americans will have cancer in their lives? Does that seem a little high to anyone else?

  5. Shill! Shill! Polluter Shill!

  6. Actually, nearly half of all American men will have cancer and 40 percent of women. See stats on lifetime risk of cancer from the National Cancer Institute. Fortunately only about a third will die of cancer. Keep in mind that cancer is generally a disease that increases with age. In earlier times a lower percentage of people died of cancer because they didn’t live long enough to get it.

  7. FYI: “Worst air in America” does not mean the same thing as “Worst air ever” or “Worst air imaginable”.

  8. A third doesn’t sound that high to me, especially given that we actually live long enough to get cancer. Plus if you’re male, and you live long enough, you’ll probably get prostate cancer. Whether you die with it or die from it is the question, that probably has a lot to do with it. Do they count melanoma (totally treatable, rarely fatal)?

    Anyway, a third doesn’t seem all that high to me.

  9. Someone’s shining an awful lot of lanterns.

  10. What I really want to know is how the worst air in America stacks up against London, Berlin, Moscow, and all the other Kyoto cities.

  11. So, cancer, asthma, and aesthetics — those are pretty much the only three things air quality can possibly affect. Whew! I guess we really dodged some bullets. Fortunately air quality can have no effect on, say, heat indexes, or foliage, or water quality, or anything like that. Nope, just the Big C and those other two things.

  12. Phil: Did you know that air pollution is way down in the US? In fact aggregately down by 54 percent since 1970. So says the EPA.

  13. What I really want to know is how the worst air in America stacks up against London, Berlin, Moscow, and all the other Kyoto cities.

    Seriously. I mean, to my knowledge, we’re not power-washing the statue of liberty every seven years because of the accumulated soot on it.

  14. I assume that I must own some minor amount of stock in some companies or other that cause some kind of air pollution, but I can’t think of them off the top of my head and I’m not going to look them up now.

    You probably also drive an SUV and have air conditioning in your house. Admit it, Ron! Tell us the TRUTH!

  15. Captain Holly: You caught me! I also use electricity-driven computers to communicate via the electricity-driven internet with other people who read my postings on their electricity-driven computers over that same internet. I do not drive an SUV, but I confess to a 1996 Jaguar which my wife refers to as my “used Ford.” And yes, since we live in the mid-Atlantic, we do ocassionally air condition (but I swear we do it for our two 18 year-old cats mostly). Mea culpa!

  16. Good to see how much banning smoking in public places has helped.

    anti-smoker: “You don’t have the right to subject everyone around you to your poisonous smoke!”

    So, do you want to use public transportation or car-pool to help with this pollution problem?

    anti-smoker: “What, and not use my right to drive my car alone to work? Fuggetaboutit, dirty smoker!”

    Manditory car-pools and public transportation would do more for LA and NY air quality than their smoking bans.

    Also, studies have shown that while air pollution may incease asthma attacks, there is not a scientific link to it actually causing asthma in people that would not normally develop asthma.

  17. people died of cancer because they didn’t live long enough to get it

    Laird help me, Martha! I is gut da Cancer!

  18. So…… are you going to retract anything you said when you cited the hysterical views of a lying creationist in attacking Dr. Pianka? Or is the fact that he’s an evironmentalist free-range to lie about him without retraction?

  19. And yes, since we live in the mid-Atlantic… Uh…you do? How do you manage that?

  20. I think he lives on a yacht or owns his own island or something, what with that bulging stock portfolio gained from shilling for big, polluting corporations.

  21. That’s terrific news, Ron, but it has absolutely no bearing on whether New York’s and Los Angeles’s proportionately worse air has proportionately worse effects on the things that are affected by air pollution. You know: Cancer, asthma and aesthetics.

  22. The name for the fallacy is population scaling.

    Risk does not get bigger with population.

    Your chances of getting hit by lightning are small. Yet out of 300 million people, some 500 (I should look that up I guess) get hit every year. Is it then a national problem? No.

    You’re as safe as you are in a small country, or in a single person country for that matter.

    The measure of tolerable risk is best given by traffic deaths, since people are willing to drive out for pizza without a second thought, taking on that risk, which will kill you about once in 5,000 years.

    Getting killed by a vicious dog is one in 25 million years, getting close to asteroid-hit territory. Yet it’s a “national problem.”

    The effect is one of population scaling.

  23. plunge & joe:

    First, I bow to none (including you two) in my disdain for creationists. Second, thanks to the posters here at H&R I learned that Mims is a creationist. Third, you offer no evidence that Pianka is not gleeful at the prospect of the death of 90% of the human population. Other posters offered links to other people who heard Pianka say basically same points. And after all, such visions are a staple of neo-Malthusianism soothsaying. (For historical context please re-read the 1968 edition The Population Bomb and Ehrlich’s fascinating article “Eco-Castrophe” in the Earth Day 1970 edition of Ramparts. In Eco-Catastrophe Ehrlich sketched a scenario in which 4 billion people die in the 1980s.)

    Joe thinks I’m “burned.” He’s welcome to his erroneous opinion as usual.

    plunge what part of the below do you think I should “retract”?

    Professor Pianka is apparently a brilliant herpetologist, but like brilliant Stanford University entomologist Paul Ehrlich, who wrote The Population Bomb nearly 40 years ago, he is completely ignorant of economics and demography. Pianka might start alleviating his ignorance by reading some of the analyses by Jesse Ausubel, head of the Human Environment Program at Rockefeller University. Relying on human creativity and wealth creation, Ausubel foresees the 21st century as the beginning of the Great Restoration of the natural environment.

  24. “Third, you offer no evidence that Pianka is not gleeful at the prospect of the death of 90% of the human population.”

    How about: Pianka and all his colleages saying that, in fact, he’s not?

    You obviously haven’t read his work anyway, becuase his actual argument has nothing to do with the resource crunches of Ehrlich that you’re obsessed with debunking, and everything to do with high population levels providing ripe ground for a mega-contagion.

    Look, I’m a Julian Simon fan. I think that, economically, more people = more minds and more stuff. But aside from the usual eco-claptrap, that has little to do with what Pianka actually argued. And there’s no evidence that he wishes harm to anyone.

    The guy YOU quoted and gave creedence to was claiming that not only was Pianka advocating killing people off, but that he and his students were actually working to make it happen. Bill Dembski actually claimed to have notified the DoHS about Pianka. Face it: you can think that Pianka’s offhand comments about humans causing ecological disaster are wrong without also endorsing and inflaming hysteria of your own in doing so.

  25. If the rest of the world becomes as rich and relatively free as The West, population will likely reduce naturally over time. Somehow this idea bugs the evironuts. To me, it seems like a very warm and fuzzy sort of future.

  26. “Good to see how much banning smoking in public places has helped.”

    The morons that run San Francisco have just made it illegal to smoke on a golf course. That is bound to make a difference.

  27. I can’t believe you didn’t get the reference to “shining a lantern on your problem.”

    Touchy, aren’t we?

  28. It’s an old political saying, Ron. “When you’ve got a problem, shine a lantern on it.” Like when Kennedy made the joke about his father not buying any more votes than he needed to. Or when you write “humorous” disclosure statements.

    “You offer not evidence that Pinanka is not gleeful…”

    Golly gee, you’re right. Not once did I notify you of the readings of my glee-ometer. Nonetheless, the story has been pretty well refuted at this, across the blogosphere.

    Toucy, aren’t we?

  29. plunge: Thanks for the other links. You overlook the OTHER GUY I linked to at the local paper in Seguin,Texas which reported Pianka’s later doomsday talk at another university (and now a follow up story too). It doesn’t sound like his comments were merely “offhand,” but interpretations will vary. In any case, do you think it possible that Pianka may be moderating his tone in the glare of unfavorable publicity?

    BTW, in all sincerity, have you read Pianka’s work or have access to a copy of his “doomsday talk”? Can you provide a link to either?

  30. I dunno, can you google? Hint: try “Pianka” No, not Eric Pianka!

  31. Yesterday with the lanterns thing, I thought you were implying that Bailey was hoping for a magical genie to solve all the world’s problems. I was like, that’s not really fair: everybody wants a magical genie. Thanx for explaining.

  32. plunge: Thanks so much for your valuable advice. In my earlier googling (before I posted the original blog item) I came across Pianka’s home page and reviewed his whole impressive list of publications on the ecology and biogeography of lizards, but failed to come across any papers by him related to his predictions of human doom. My guess is, and I could be wrong, that you’ve been unable to find any such either. So again, have you read his stuff on this topic?

    BTW, I have subsequently googled the web reaction to his doomsday talks and agree with you that it’s mostly been way over the top. Death threats, reporting to Homeland Security, calls for his removal, are just stupid. It’s sufficient to point out that Pianka doesn’t know what he’s talking about and move on.

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