The Trump administration has proposed to freeze Obama-era fuel economy standards at 2020 levels to save lives and money. Opponents want to bring the proposed Safe Affordable Fuel-Efficient (SAFE) Vehicles Rule proposal to a screeching halt by claiming that it will cause more deaths than lives saved.
The Trump Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimate that freezing the Obama standards would reduce car prices by thousands of dollars. Given an average age of a car of about 12 years, lower car prices would get more people into newer and safer cars sooner. Safer cars combined with less driving anticipated from lower fuel economy is estimated by the Trump administration to reduce traffic fatalities by about 1,000 lives per year.
But opponents like William Schlesinger, an Obama EPA-appointed member of EPA’s Science Advisory Board, says any rollback should also account for premature deaths caused by particulate matter (PM) air pollution from increased tailpipe emissions. “The science is clear that [PM] kills people,” says Schlesinger.
Indeed, the pre-Trump EPA spent much of the last 25 years building the case that PM (soot and dust) in outdoor air is virtually the most lethal substance known to man. Obama EPA chief Lisa Jackson testified in 2011 to Congress that, “Particulate Matter causes premature deaths. It doesn’t make you sick. It is directly causal to dying sooner than you should.” She pegged the annual death toll due to PM in outdoor air at 570,000 – about 1-in-5 deaths in the U.S. Alleged deaths caused by PM was how the Obama EPA justified all its war-on-coal rules.
But my new analysis, just published by the Competitive Enterprise Institute, entirely debunks the notion that PM in outdoor air kills anyone at all.
Advocates of the notion that PM kills point to “thousands” of “peer-reviewed” studies and a “who’s who” of scientists and institutions in the public health establishment supporting the idea. This is true.
But they are wrong – and that is being generous.
The vast majority of the studies relied on by the pre-Trump EPA to condemn PM are statistical studies of human populations called epidemiology. These studies are controversial for a number of reasons too numerous to review here. But it is worth mentioning that the raw data underlying the key studies relied on by the pre-Trump EPA have literally been kept secret by agency-funded researchers for 24 years – even defying congressional subpoena. So no one can even check their work.
All you really need to know, though, is what the EPA admitted in federal court with me in litigation over PM: the PM epidemiology studies, because of their exclusively statistical nature, prove nothing by themselves.
Because correlation does not equate to causation, the EPA admitted to the court that it undertook a series of experiments in which elderly and sick people were made to inhale very high levels of PM to see whether any harm was caused. Before the Trump EPA shut down these experiments, hundreds of human guinea pigs had been exposed to allegedly lethal PM during the Obama administration alone. Not only did no one die, not a single adverse effect from these gas chamber experiments was reported.
EPA and others have also conducted many studies in which multitudes of animals were exposed to very high levels of PM. No animal has ever died as a result of these experiments.
So that’s three strikes and the claim that PM kills is out. But there’s more.
There were three incidents of fatal air pollution during the 20th Century: Meuse Valley, Belgium (1930), Donora, Pennsylvania (1948) and London (1952). In none of these incidents was PM, much less auto tailpipe emissions, fingered as the lethal culprit. Rather, the deaths were attributed to uncontrolled smokestack emissions of acidic gases trapped and concentrated in the air by local temperature inversions.
Today, in China, even though PM levels can reach astronomical levels, there are no reports of actual deaths from air pollution other than those caused by visibility accidents. This is because levels of acidic gases in outdoor air are controlled and well-within safe levels.
All this reality stands in stark contrast to the uncorroborated, secret science-based claims about PM made by pre-Trump EPA-funded researchers. Let’s make reality great again, too.