Where There's Smoke, Is There Asthma?

asthma chart

Michigan citizens want to protect the environment. So, who would not be distressed to read a recent headline in The Grand Rapids Press, “Ottawa among top 100 polluting counties in the U.S.”?

Such pronouncements are common, but not because air quality has deteriorated. On the contrary, the air Americans breathe has become cleaner over the past three decades. But misinterpretation of environmental data is rampant in the news media and elsewhere, contributing to unsound policy and wasted opportunities.

The Press article reported that the J.H. Campbell power plant, operated near Holland by Consumers Energy, emitted 6.8 million pounds of pollutants in 2000, out of a total of 13.4 million pounds emitted by all industries in Ottawa County. What the Press neglected to mention is that the degree of health risk is not determined by emission volume, but by concentration levels of particular compounds.

Federal law strictly regulates concentrations of toxic emissions, requiring levels well within a sizeable margin of safety. States must comply with air-quality standards established by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). As it happens, Michigan surpasses those standards by 40 percent to 80 percent for most pollutants. In fact, in 2000, West Michigan – including Ottawa County – recorded only four days during which air quality fell below EPA standards. Hot weather – not the volume or toxicity of emissions – was the chief culprit, since heat increases the conversion of emissions into smog.

It is misleading, then, for the news media to report emission levels without presenting the relevant facts about overall air quality.

Another example: A recent press release by the Michigan Environmental Council bore the headline: “Nearly 2 million Michigan children breathe pollution from dirty power plants.” Yet, according to the Clean Air Task Force, no child in Michigan lived within 30 miles of any electric plant that was out of compliance with air-quality standards.

The EPA recently proposed even tougher air-quality standards, which include very small particles, high concentrations of which may play a role in childhood asthma.

Fortunately, in 2000, most Michigan counties already met the new standards. Three of 12 counties reporting data on small-particle concentrations only slightly exceeded the new limits on annual average levels (Kalamazoo, Monroe, and Oakland); and none exceeded the limits for a 24-hour period. Wayne County alone significantly exceeded the new standards for annual average concentration, by 33 percent. Given the acceptable quality of air in Ottawa County, the headline about its dangerous emissions seems particularly unwarranted.

Not enough is known about the causes of childhood asthma to determine whether targeting small-particle emissions would prevent it. Other unhealthy conditions plague high-asthma areas – principally inner cities – such as cockroach dander and insecticides, as well as limited access to health care.

Certainly, if it can be shown that poor air quality is the principal cause of childhood asthma, a targeted regulatory approach would make more sense than the EPA’s standard, which applies to all counties regardless of local asthma rates. In Michigan, Wayne (not Ottawa) County would seem the most obvious target, since it accounts for 58 percent of all childhood asthma cases in the state. Yet, the rate of asthma cases there is little different from elsewhere in the state.

It is estimated that the new, more stringent, EPA standards may cost the economy a total of $90 billion. Ironically, such high costs can endanger public health far more than current emission levels. Higher compliance costs cause job losses. Lost employment robs poor families – those most at risk – of access to health care and the means to maintain a healthier lifestyle.

When evaluating environmental regulations, citizens should seek answers to the following questions:

  • Is there solid scientific evidence connecting the targeted pollution and illness?

  • What are the negative consequences of raising environmental standards – both in terms of dollars and unemployment?

  • Does the proposed regulation give businesses incentives to improve pollution controls?

  • Is there a less costly method to achieve the same health objectives?

Rather than relying on alarming headlines, citizens should demand that lawmakers justify regulations based on the above criteria. Otherwise, we may waste vast sums of money on remote threats, while ignoring the real sources of environmental problems.


(Robin Klay, Ph. D. and Victor Claar, Ph. D. are economists at Hope College in Holland, Mich. , and adjunct scholars with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Michigan. More information is available at www.mackinac.org. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the authors and their affiliations are cited.)


Misinterpretation of environmental data has become rampant, contributing to unsound policy and wasted opportunities. Here in Michigan, for example, a news report recently cited pollutant emission volume as a health danger without informing readers that health risk is determined by concentration levels of particular compounds. Rather than relying on alarming headlines, citizens should demand that lawmakers justify regulations based on sound science and competent reporting.

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