Green Games with Asthma Distract from Real Solutions

August 23, 2012

The Seattle Times recently ran an excellent piece on an effort to prevent asthma in children and reduce attacks for those already living with asthma. The article, "Program uses home visits to help asthmatic kids breathe easier," highlights efforts to reduce the incidence of asthma among children by reducing the risk factors in homes. The article tells the story of one boy whose symptoms have disappeared...

Two years ago, Abraham's room had carpeting and a filthy furnace collecting dust, which sometimes riled up his asthma. Now, without the carpet and outdated furnace, the soon-to-be seventh-grader at Chinook Middle School in SeaTac doesn't say he has asthma, because it hasn't bothered him in a year.

The story said workers "inspect residences for triggers like dust, poor ventilation and mold that can aggravate asthma." The piece is enlightening because it highlights real solutions to childhood asthma. By way of contrast, many in the environmental community have used asthma as a political tool to promote policies that will do little, if anything, to reduce asthma rates.

For example, the Washington Environmental Council told the Legislature in 2005, "Automobiles are the number one source of Washington’s air pollution and are a major factor in asthma rates in our cities. Kids in Seattle and Spokane suffer from asthma at a rate higher than the national average." The implication was that Seattle's air quality was worse than average when, in fact, it is dramatically better than most cities. Outdoor air quality, especially Seattle's very clean air, is not a "major factor" in asthma rates.

One opponent of natural gas fracking, Paul Gallay of Riverkeepers, told an audience at a Wall Street Journal discussion on the issue, "In the Dallas/Ft. Worth area the amount of childhood asthma is double the statewide average. These are the facts." The implication is that fracking created the asthma. This is also false. The outdoor air quality has actually improved in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area in recent years.

State of Washington Ecology Director Ted Sturdevant also contributed to this narrative earlier this year, signing a letter to the EPA advocating for new air pollution regulations, noting "Carbon pollution and global warming facilitate the formation of smog that triggers asthma attacks..." Actually asthma rates have climbed dramatically as air quality has improved in recent years. Additionally, those air quality improvements have occurred in recent years as temperatures have increased, indicating that temperature's effect on air quality is lower than factors reducing that pollution. Focusing on outdoor air quality as a cause of asthma distracts from the real causes and encourages politicians to spend money on efforts that will have little, if any, positive impact on childhood asthma.

Instead of focusing on solutions like the one highlighted by the Seattle Times, environmental advocates' use of asthma as a political talking point distracts from projects that will make a real difference. Given a choice between funding the home visits or efforts to reduce the very low levels of air pollution we have, there is no question which will be more effective.

So, why does the environmental left ignore these efforts while exaggerating the role outdoor air quality plays in asthma rates?

Environmentalists Ted Nordhaus and Michael Schellenberger have an answer in their book "Breakthrough." Highlighting the efforts of environmentalists in New York to reduce childhood asthma by focusing on transit emissions, Nordhaus and Shellenberger noted that research "found asthma to be caused by many factors not just air pollution..." Indeed, other causes were far more important. Despite that, they noted that environmental groups continued to focus on outdoor air quality. Echoing the Washington Environmental Council's claim about air pollution and asthma, a New York environmental group wrote, "We need to concentrate on the preventable exposures that may contribute to childhood asthma, and air pollution is at the top of that list."

Even as it became clear that treating other causes of asthma were far more important priorities, as the Seattle Times article again demonstrates, "environmental justice" groups ignored that success. Nordhaus and Shellenberger say they know why.

The reason is because activists such as the WEC, Paul Gallay and Ted Sturdevant focus on their agenda rather than solutions. Nordhaus and Shellenberger write:

Environmental justice is primarily interested in advancing and merging two discourses: one about racial prejudice and inequality and the other about environmental pollution. The goal is not to improve health outcomes for the poor or nonwhite communities. The result is that environmental justice advocates tend to be interested in the health and well-being of communities of color only insofar as their research demonstrates that health problems are both caused by pollution and greater among minorities. Ironically, environmental justice advocates often end up focusing on concerns that are neither particularly significant nor particularly salient to the communities in question.

This is why prioritizing environmental efforts and weighing costs and benefits is so critical. Wasting time, money and effort on issues that are unlikely to yield significant health benefits wastes an opportunity to make real progress. At a time when resources are scarce, exaggerating impacts to suit a political agenda will end up harming the very same people who need help.