Poisoning the Kids

Once again, our Unifier-in-Chief has treated us to the tired old mantras -- i.e., that the GOP will [fill in the blank]: poison our kids with pollution, treat workers and consumers badly, enslave women in the kitchen, steal Grandma's Social Security and kick her out into the street...ad infinitum.  The most ridiculous of these claims, if it is even possible to pick one, deals with the state of our environment here in our country.  Unfortunately for the president and his minions, the environment has never been cleaner in our lifetimes than now.

To look at just one piece of the environmental quality puzzle, consider the Clean Air Act.  As a result of certain tragic incidents, the groundwork for the Clean Air Act was developed.  As one of the worst air pollution incidents in our country's history, in October 1948, 20 people died and over 7,000 were hospitalized or became ill as a result of an air inversion that trapped the air emissions from the Donora Zinc Works and other nearby industrial operations in the valley town of Donora, Pennsylvania (Donora Smog).  As an example, this was the all too typical state of the environment up until even the 1970s.

Recognizing these issues, and the work of addressing the obvious environmental concerns, President Richard Nixon began and established the groundwork for much of the alphabet soup of major environmental laws: National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), Clean Water Act (CWA), Clean Air Act (CAA), Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), etc.  In addition, he established the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to oversee these programs.  The results of these programs had, and still have, tremendous immediate and long-lasting return on the efforts.

As a measure of the quality of air in our country, the U.S. EPA maintains data and statistics that quantify air quality from 1980 to the present.  Based on the U.S. EPA's own data, the national ambient air quality standards for certain target pollutants have all steadily and dramatically reduced.  As a national average:

  • Carbon monoxide has been reduced 82%
  • Ozone was reduced 28%
  • Lead has been reduced 89%
  • Nitrogen oxides have been reduced 52%
  • Particulate matter as PM10 was reduced 38%, and fine particulate matter as PM 2.5 has been reduced 27%
  • Sulfur dioxide has been reduced 83%

Regardless, according the Obama administration and its supporters, the quality of the air in our country is literally killing our kids.  Coincidentally, or in collusion (you decide) with the Obama administration, recently the American Lung Association has begun running emotionally charged television advertisements depicting the horrible state of our air quality on...wait for it...the children.  The gut-wrenching images of children struggling to breath while fitted with a nebulizer, among the other emotionally charged depictions, are flashed on the television screen for all to witness.  What decent human being could possibly be for causing such harm to the children?  Coincidentally, this is the same talking point used by President Obama and his party as they seek to dehumanize the Republicans and their alleged benefactors...evil big business.

Newly proposed federal laws and regulations, and reconsideration of existing federal laws and regulations, had taken a dizzying pace over the past few years under President Obama and the now enviro-activist U.S. EPA.  While sold as targeting only big polluters, the cost will ultimately be borne by all in the higher prices for goods and services produced, and in reduced employment that offsets the cost of compliance with these draconian environmental directives.

To contemplate listing or evaluating the cumulative burden on business, industry, and consumers caused by the major and minor new and pending Obama administration federal regulatory approach is folly unto itself; it is the sheer scope that is staggering in such a relatively short time-frame.  The challenge is how to communicate the harm to business abundance and cost of compliance to a general public whose opinion has been formed from society in general, education, television, the nightly news, and even certain political leaders, and whose understanding is that greedy corporations are freely contaminating and degrading our environment for profit...people are dying. 

In all of these and the many other federal regulatory initiatives in the last few years, pollution prevention is one consideration, but what of the cost?  By any measure, the environment across our nation has never been cleaner in our lifetimes than now.  Where once upon a time, many decades ago, contamination was emitted almost freely into the environment, now, it is not. 

Regardless, we continue to expend more and more efforts and money to seek those remaining molecules of contamination to satisfy our appetite for environmental perfection.  The law of diminishing returns on our environmental regulations investment has set itself upon us in many instances.  While nobody is suggesting to stop efforts addressing actual pollution issues that may harm human health or the environment, some measure of the likelihood of harm seems prudent.

The main players now involved at the U.S. EPA seem to view precaution subjectively and have minimized or eliminated the consideration of cost-effectiveness.  The need to respond to an unreasonable, quantifiable risk has been (in lieu of law) replaced by these administrators with an apparent new perspective of demonstrating a reasonable certainty of no harm -- the terms "reasonable certainty" and "no harm" being quite subjective.

There needs to be a balance between the benefits and conveniences to our lives and the probability of being reasonably protective of our health.  Mortality is well-established at 100%.  There cannot be a no-exposure scenario; some amount of health risk from exposure to naturally occurring and manufactured chemicals is inherent in being alive.  For man-made contributions of chemicals to the environment, additions to the natural level of chemicals present typically occur not on a whim, but rather to enhance our daily lives, make them easier, provide products that extend our lives, or mitigate other issues that arise as a result of modern life.

We have come to a time in our country where precaution has become subjective prohibition, where humanistic vanity to control others is prevalent, and where proportionality addressing the pressing problems facing our world today has been lost.  We should be spending our efforts wisely to maintain our own economic abundance so that we may continue to help ourselves and others.  Our abundance allows us to maintain a relatively high standard of living that benefits all in our country, in addition to providing huge contributions throughout the world to assist poor nations to grow crops, access clean water, overcome diseases that are only history to us, and respond to natural and man-made disasters. 

Instead, the environmental activists would rather have us deal with subjectively applied environmental standards, cripple ourselves economically, and diminish our ability to help others and ourselves.  We should bear in mind that economic and social manipulation, not reasonable precautions, is the environmental activist's true principle, the true poison to Americanism.

Robert T. Smith is a senior environmental scientist and co-owner of an environmental engineering firm, with over 29 years of experience as an environmental scientist.