Still the Only Thing We Have to Fear

On March 4, 1933 newly elected President of the United States Franklin Delano Roosevelt made this famous declaration during his inaugural address: “…let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself; nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror.” FDR had his faults, as all leaders do, but uttering those words to a nation terrified by hopelessness and dread was a shining moment in his career.

On February 20, 2023 The Pipeline's editor Michael Walsh wrote this: “…democracy does not "die in darkness." It dies in chaos, brought on by fear, engendered by uncertainty and birthed of instability…” While I’m not willing to suggest that Walsh's eloquence should move him to seek elected office, or to be regularly photographed grinning with a fancy cigarette holder clenched in his teeth, I do believe that his declaration is every bit as profound as Roosevelt’s was ninety years prior.

In 1933 Americans were terrified by enormous economic upheaval few citizens understood. The disaster seemed unsolvable to most. In 2023 Americans are terrified by rapid advances in technologies and the sciences that – to many – seem to create problems as equally dangerous and apparently unsolvable as the Great Depression did in 1933.

FDR: Fear itself.

This writer is not an expert on all technologies and all of science. We’ve advanced way to far for anyone to lay claim to being a modern-day Da Vinci. That said, this writer is an expert on the complex intersection of chemistry, environmental protection, risk evaluation, and public policy. In that world Walsh’s description holds true: all rational parts of that equation are dying in chaos, brought on by fear, engendered by uncertainty, and birthed of instability. Moreover, I firmly believe that is the case in many, likely most, other areas of scientific discipline when they intersect with public policy or popular trends. In this era of mass, instantaneous communication, nothing is guaranteed to attract more attention than communicating fear.

Consider how many people routinely purchase indoor “air purifiers” that are designed to remove air contaminants from indoor air by generating the most widely regulated air pollutant in America: ozone. Ozone is basically oxygen on steroids; three oxygen atoms bonded together rather than the usual two. The extra atom gives ozone some unique properties, among which is its ability to react with a variety of air contaminants and remove them from the air we breathe. So far so good, except for the fact that ozone is itself a highly regulated air contaminant. Reducing ozone in the air we breathe has been the focus of EPA and environmental group efforts for over fifty years.

The EPA has reduced the National Ambient Air Quality Standard for ozone three times since the original Clean Air Act was promulgated. Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama all reduced the ozone standard, largely in response to environmental group claims that the preceding standard was not sufficiently protective of human health. There are mountains of regulations designed to reduced ozone formation. Vehicles have catalytic convertors largely to reduce ozone formation. If you live in an urban area, you pay for low vapor pressure gasoline in the summer months to reduce ozone formation. The push to reduce ozone formation affects the price we pay for electricity, natural gas, consumer goods, and a host of other areas.

Liberals have toyed with the ludicrous idea of banning natural gas-fired appliances, but none seems moved to grab this incredibly low-hanging fruit: Americans are routinely purchasing air-pollution generators in the name of improving air quality! It’s the sort of exploitation of fear and ignorance that would have amazed even Orwell.

Beware the O-Zone.

Ozone-generating air purifiers are just one example of the ignorance and hypocrisy that infects issues involving science and technology. Fire up your favorite search engine and try out the following queries: “manganese pollution,” “lead toxicity,” and “poly-aromatic hydrocarbons cancer risk.” You’ll find some dry, technically-accurate but boring as hell to read discussions involving those keywords published by government agencies and academics, and you’ll also find articles in which “experts” warn readers about the extreme danger associated with exposure to those compounds.

But how significant are these supposed dangers? Let’s start with manganese. Do you or a loved one take a multi-vitamin on a regular basis? Take a look at the ingredient list. Chances are you’ll find manganese listed among the minerals included.

This may give you pause. There are plenty of stories out there that describe manganese as a dangerous neuro-toxin. There are plenty of community leaders, political types, and environmental activists wringing their hands about the fate of the poor, innocent children exposed to this poison. So what the heck is it doing in your vitamins?

The answer is that manganese is an important and necessary micro-nutrient. Your body doesn’t need a lot of it, but it needs some of it. Chemicals are neither inherently toxic or non-toxic. The dose makes the poison, so it’s the amount one is exposed to and the route of exposure that ultimately matter. Good luck finding any member of the modern intelligentsia who understands, much less can explain, that simple fact.

Most everyone is aware of the dangers associated with ingesting lead. Less well known is that virtually every kitchen in the United States contains bowls and utensils that contain lead. For lead is a minor, but measurable, component of many grades of stainless steel—and whose kitchen doesn’t have a stainless item in it?

Does the amount of lead contained in stainless steel or how it is held within the lattice structure of the metal present any concerns about lead exposure? Not really, but don’t expect the fear-mongers to figure that out, even if they cared to do so.

Safety first.

And Poly Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAH)? There’s plenty of literature talking about how these potentially toxic and/or carcinogenic compounds can be formed during the combustion of coal, oil or natural gas. True, so far as that goes, but in very tiny amounts that will expose the average citizen to concentrations so low they are hardly of concern.

On the other hand, the smoke from your campfire, the cloud coming from your charcoal grill and any smoked food you consume will contain much more PAH compounds than anything a power plant will expose you to. That doesn’t keep me from enjoying smoked and barbecue foods, but then I’m not a hypocrite.

If you’re reading this piece, most experts agree that you are probably alive. Other experts tell us that sometime in the future you will cease to be alive. In between then and now, do yourself a favor: enjoy life. One of the ways you can enjoy it best is by tuning out the sad, ignorant masters of exploitation and propaganda who dream up ways to try to control your behavior by exploiting your natural tendency to exercise extreme caution when facing fear itself.

OUT: Ozone; IN: Particulate Matter

It’s the go-to solution when you need to complain about air pollution: particulate matter less than 2.5 microns in aerodynamic diameter, aka Fine Particles aka PM-2.5. It’s dangerous! It’s deadly! Removing it from the air will usher in previously unforeseen levels of economic prosperity! We know this to be true because the academic elite and the ruling class assure us it is so. If you are inclined to question the so-called “science” please shut the hell up and stand in the corner.

Oddly, PM-2.5 didn’t always have the starring role in the nation’s air pollution drama that it enjoys today. Shoot, for the first twenty-six years of the Clean Air Act it wasn’t even officially on stage.

The star of the air pollution world for the first thirty or so years was urban ozone, sometimes called smog. Ozone is welcome in the stratosphere where it blocks strong ultraviolet radiation. Not so much in the troposphere though, because that’s where we do our breathing. Ozone doesn’t get along with lungs very well.

Welcome to L.A., the nation's bogeyman.

If you’re old enough, you can remember flying into big cities on hot summer days and passing through a layer of atmosphere that had a decided orange tinge. What you were witnessing was the interaction between two air pollutants, nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds that form unwelcome ozone in the troposphere during hot, relatively calm days.

One doesn’t see that phenomenon much anymore this side of the Los Angeles basin. Since it’s located in what is essentially a geological bowl, L.A. is about the greatest ozone incubator in the United States. Everywhere else, programs to reduce emission of nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds were wildly successful. From the perspective of many environmental groups, perhaps too successful. As more and more urban centers came into compliance with new ozone standards, it became harder and harder to keep up the scare. People aren’t apt to open up their wallets for a healthy planet. The Sierra Club et al. need the scare to survive.

Presidents Clinton, Bush number 2 and Obama tried to help solve the problem by redefining clean air to include lesser and lesser concentrations of ozone. Like it or not, there’s always going to be some ozone in the air we breathe. Less as you live farther from the equator where temperatures don’t support ozone formation. More if you live closer to the earth’s relatively hot midriff. (Even more should you decide to purchase an “air purifier” for you home that claims to accomplish that goal by generating ozone. Go figure.)

Continually redefining “clean air” by reducing the amount of allowable ozone in the troposphere didn’t work out as planned either. Big urban areas kept making reductions in emissions. Even those that couldn’t quite hit the ridiculously low ozone standard that Obama’s EPA implemented could still point to massive overall reductions in ozone formation over the decades.

Less ozone, more asthma?

It was also harder and harder to play the asthma card, which is as important to environmental NGOs as the race card is to Democrats. You can’t keep wringing your hands about ozone causing asthma when we’ve got fifty years of data that shows steadily decreasing ozone generation and steadily increasing incidences of asthma. It is famously true that correlation is not necessarily causation, but in this case we don’t even have correlation.

So, the spotlight gradually shifted to PM-2.5. The EPA established a new National Ambient Air Quality Standard (NAAQS) for the pollutant in 1997. That standard was subsequently lowered twice, in 2006 and again in 2012. In 2020 the EPA reviewed the PM-2.5 standard again, as it is required to do for all NAAQS every five years and decided that the 2012 standards were low enough. Indeed the PM-2.5 NAAQS is now so low that it’s approaching background levels in many areas. But now the EPA has reversed itself – can’t imagine why – and is taking another look at lowering an already ridiculously low standard.

Here's the thing about PM-2.5: it’s an all-purpose weapon in the hands of pr-savvy NGOs. It’s everywhere and it can be – and is – blamed for any illness involving the lungs. When EPA does its peculiar arithmetic to demonstrate how much money a new regulation is going to save the nation, they trot out PM-2.5. Their logical progression is as follows: 1) numerous studies show that PM-2.5 is related to respiratory illnesses, 2) reducing PM-2.5 in the atmosphere will reduce respiratory illnesses by “N” amount, 3) fewer respiratory illnesses mean less hospitalizations and longer lives, 4) less hospitalizations saves consumers “X” dollars, 5) longer lives are worth “Y” dollars, and 6) X + Y = a bagillion dollars!

You can’t prove that any of this actually happens. But, you can’t disprove it either. Claiming monetary savings by reducing PM-2.5 is practically required to justify any sort of rule-making these days. EPA promulgated the Mercury and Air Toxic Standards (MATS) in 2011, a regulation aimed at reducing mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants. It was tough to find economic benefit in reducing mercury emissions, especially since the vast majority of mercury in the atmosphere originates in coal-fired power plants in China and India. So they turned to PM-2.5. It seems that the controls that lower mercury emissions will also lower PM-2.5 emissions Who knew! The majority of the “savings” that EPA attributes to MATS—$37 to $90 billion per year, if you believe them—comes from incidental PM-2.5 reductions. They did the same dance when the Boiler MACT rules, which affect industrial boilers of all kinds, were first promulgated. PM-2.5 reductions again “paid” for the cost of the rule.

Blame nature, not Man.

Amazing stuff this PM-2.5. One could make a fortune just by removing it from the air, with the side benefit that we would all then pretty much become immortal. But here’s something EPA never brings up when it’s championing the value of PM-2.5 reductions, or passing new rules that will “reduce” their presence in the air we breathe. The biggest source of PM-2.5 emissions, according to EPA’s own data is not industry. Nor is it mobile sources. The biggest source of PM-2.5 in the atmosphere are natural (biogenic) sources and fires. The latter category includes forest fires and controlled burns. About 75 percent of all the PM-2.5 in the air we breathe comes from natural sources and fires.

Claiming that reducing PM-2.5 emissions from industrial sources will have this magically profitable effect on the American economy is a nothing but a scam. Now, more than ever, industrial and mobile sources have less and less to do with the PM-2.5 in the air we breathe. If the politicians and regulators who piously claim that “they follow the science” truly did, you’d think they would admit that.