No, pollution isn’t racist and it’s hard to believe one even needs to say it

Progressives have convinced themselves that the specter of racism and white supremacy is critical to achieving their longstanding goal of increased government power, and therefore they need to find racism everywhere, even in the air itself.

Sometimes, it never ceases to amaze how rapid and coordinated the progressive push to proclaim everything is racist, or at least rooted in white supremacy, and that racism (or at least white supremacy), is everywhere we look, lurking literally in every shadow, and now even in the air we breath, more on that in a moment.  Earlier this year, progressives engaged in a push to change the definition of white supremacy to include colored people who are white supremacists, presumably believing they are in fact inferior to white people and should be subservient to them.  White supremacy now comes in all colors, we were told, and sure enough, after a black man was beaten to death by five black police officers in a tragic and somewhat bizarrely still unexplained incident of police brutality, we were informed by progressives in the media that white supremacy and racism were in fact to blame because policing itself is a form of white supremacy.  The officers, though minorities themselves, must have been infected by the mind virus somehow.  Fast forward three months, and we appear to be in the midst of another such push, this one perhaps even more radical and ridiculous:  Air pollution is racist now as well, at least according to multiple new studies unquestionably broadcast by an incredulous media.  Last week, I commented on one from the University of Southern California that essentially proclaimed white people do the driving, but black people die from the fumes in the context of the entire environmental movement going woke.  As they put it, “Vehicular air pollution has created an ongoing air quality and public health crisis. Despite growing knowledge of racial injustice in exposure levels, less is known about the relationship between the production of and exposure to such pollution.”   The Los Angeles Times translated this into the progressive language of the media, “It may sound like a paradox, but it’s not. It’s a function of the racism that shaped this city and its suburbs, and continues to influence our daily lives — and a stark reminder of the need for climate solutions that benefit everyone.”

This week, CNN joined the fray with an article based on a similar study from The New England Journal of Medicine, headlined “‘Equal opportunity to be healthy’: Stricter air pollution standards would benefit some populations more than others, study says.”  They began, “Everyone benefits when there is less air pollution, but it pays off more for older communities with high poverty rates and those where larger populations of Black people live, regardless of income.”  The study in question looked at the “connection” between deaths and a certain type of air pollution, PM2.5, named that way because particulate matter in the air is 2.5 microns or less in diameter, about 20th the size of a human hair.  Current standards allow 12 micrograms of PM2.5 particulate matter per cubic meter of atmosphere.  A microgram is a millionth of a gram, meaning the standard allows for 12 millionths of a gram per cubic meter, an absolutely miniscule amount by any standard.  To put this in perspective, a single grain of pollen weighs about 7.9 micrograms and pollen counts that are considered severe average over 13,000 grains per cubic meter.  A person is exposed to almost 9,000 times as many particulates in the form of pollen every spring than air pollution, but the Environmental Protection Agency is considering making this standard even more stringent, lowering the threshold to between 9 and 10 micrograms of particulate matter per cubic meter.  You will not be surprised to learn that the authors of this study want a steeper reduction and have settled on 8 or under because environmental justice demands it.  They arrived at this conclusion by analyzing “Medicare data from 73 million people who were 65 or older from 2000 through 2016.”  Then, they “estimated the associations between annual PM2.5 exposure and mortality in communities defined by racial identity (Black vs. White) and income level (Medicaid-eligible vs. ineligible).”  The use of the word “estimated” in this context is a rather generous way of saying that they completely and totally made it up.  There is no accepted association between the two, nor is there any actual cause of death attributed to PM2.5 air pollution on any death certificate anywhere.  Rather, there is another “estimate” of 107,000 “premature deaths” per year due to it.  In other words, the authors are using an estimate on top of an estimate for a phenomenon that isn’t tracked and isn’t listed as a cause of death.

If you do not believe me, they themselves admit they have not established any actual causation, and yet still they conclude that lowering the threshold to 8 micrograms or below would reduce the mortality rate by 4% overall, 7% among wealthier black people, and 6% among lower income black people, though how it would do that given we do not know how many deaths to attribute to PM2.5 in the first place is left entirely unsaid. Instead, Dr. Francesca Dominici, a professor of biostatistics, population, and data science at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public health and co-author of the study noted, “So you’ve doubled the mortality rate rate reduction by putting more stringent standards for marginalized communities.  To me, that was surprising, how much more benefit you’re going to get.”  Dr. Dominici then proceeded to note that the study “can’t specifically get at the reasons for this difference” to use CNN’s phrase, but she has some ideas.  “It’s potentially due to the social structure forces that lead to discrimination and social exclusion,” she said, rather than any biological differences without saying why.  “I think that it could be the combined effect of living through these times of being denied an equal opportunity to be healthy,” whatever that means. Regardless, “There is enormous evidence of environmental inequities in the United States, and so with more stringent pollution standards, there will be more equity,” whatever that means for a second time. “We are at a crucial time when the EPA is thinking about more stringent standards, so it will be important to think about the context involved and to really think through these decisions with regard to environmental justice, race and social class,” Dr. Dominici concluded in the ever-present language of the left.  To summarize, the study used and “estimate” never before attempted, one they admit does not establish any causal connection, nor do they have any idea what the connection is, except it has to be racist and, of course, if you do what they say, when they say it, you will not only resolve long standing injustice, but the entire world will benefit more than even they themselves dreamt it was possible, just like magic.

Meanwhile, air pollution is known to be highly localized problem, assuming one exists in the first place, and does not require expensive, costly, and counterproductive federal regulations to resolve. It certainly isn’t racist, except in the sense that many black Americans live in large cities where air pollution tends to be higher and many people on the lower end of the income scale can live in proximity to power plants.  How do we know this?  First, via common sense and basic logic.  If we take Dr. Dominici at her word and assume there is no biological factor at work, we must also assume that two people exposed to the same air, that is living in the same general region, are exposed to the same pollution.  No one to my knowledge has suggested that a black couple and a white couple living on the same block experience different levels of pollution.  Therefore, pollution is a fact of where you live and is not in any way shape or form determined by your race, save that for obvious reasons people tend to congregate in areas where others like themselves are well represented and, of course, where job opportunities that match their skills exist. You do not see many farmers in downtown Manhattan or Wall Street executives in Kalamazoo, Michigan, for example.  Nor did I choose those two careers randomly.  Regardless of race or ethnicity, the farmer, assuming they do not live near a power plant, is likely to experience less air pollution and make less money than the Wall Street executive, meaning we can glean very little directly from income level or ethnicity without knowing where a person lives, but we do know that another person – again, whatever their income level, race, or ethnicity – that lives in the same area is going to experience the same pollution.

Second, the initial study on premature deaths from air pollution mentioned earlier supports much the same conclusion.  This study began by noting that the overall phenomena is not well known.  “Fine particulate matter (PM2.5) air pollution has been recognized as a major source of mortality in the United States for at least 25 years, yet much remains unknown about which sources are the most harmful, let alone how best to target policies to mitigate them. Such efforts can be improved by employing high-resolution geographically explicit methods for quantifying human health impacts of emissions of PM2.5 and its precursors.”  The team, headed by Andrew L. Goodkind at the University of New Mexico, sought to remedy that by providing a “detailed examination of the health and economic impacts of PM2.5 pollution in the United States by linking emission sources with resulting pollution concentrations.”  What they found should not be surprising to anyone given these particulates are emitted from a source, be it a power plant or a volcano.  “A small fraction of emissions, concentrated in or near densely populated areas, plays an outsized role in damaging human health with the most damaging 10% of total emissions accounting for 40% of total damages.”

Read that again:  The regional impact is so dramatic, that close to half of the problem can be solved by focusing on only 10% of the entire emissions in the United States.  Any rational policy would begin by addressing that phenomenon, but even then “We find that 33% of damages occur within 8 km of emission sources,” meaning beyond focusing on the 10% of most damaging areas, we could solve another third of the problem by zoning in on 5 mile area around where the emissions were generated.  It is true that the study also found that “25% occur more than 256 km away, emphasizing the importance of tracking both local and long-range impacts.”   At the same time, this suggests that the returns on any policy limiting these emissions are greatly reduced by distance, meaning they are likely to be of so diminished a return as to be not worth it.  The authors concluded “Our paper highlights the importance of a fine-scale approach as marginal damages can vary by over an order of magnitude within a single county.”  In other words, even if we accept that these particulates are causing 107,000 premature deaths per year, there is no reason to conclude that we can expect across the board reductions by race and ethnicity because the issue is heavily localized.  Interestingly, we can also add:  Given that we remain unsure specifically which particulates as part of the PM2.5 pollution are harmful, recommending the lowering of all particulates is not guaranteed to have any effect whatsoever.  As the authors of the excess death study noted, “much remains unknown about which sources are the most harmful.”  This means that any study which claims some grand reduction in deaths as a result of lowering the standard for all is specious at best, fundamentally flawed at worst.

Alas, these are the fruits of the disproportionate impact standard.  If every difference in outcome is attributed to race and ethnicity, rather than looking closely at other factors that have a more dramatic impact and can more fully explain the difference, you will find racism everywhere, but of course that seems to be the entire point of the enterprise.  Progressives have convinced themselves that the specter of racism and white supremacy is critical to achieving their longstanding goal of increased government power, and therefore they need to find racism everywhere, regardless of whether or not it actually exists.  It doesn’t matter how nonsensical or easily explicable by other means.  All that matters is that they get their way.


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