‘Modern air is a little too clean’: the rise of air pollution denial

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Last week in Delhi, schools closed and events were cancelled due to extremely high pollution levels. Photo: Allison Joyce/Getty Images

Last week in Delhi, schools closed and events were cancelled due to extremely high pollution levels. Photo: Allison Joyce/Getty Images

Despite report after report linking air pollution to deterioration of the lungs, heart and brain, Professor Robert Phalen believes the air is “too clean” for children.

After all, everybody needs a bit of immune-system-boosting dirt in their lungs.

“Modern air is a little too clean for optimum health,” he told the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), one of the world’s largest scientific societies, in 2012.

“My most important role in science is causing trouble and controversy,” he added.

Now the director of the air pollution health effects laboratory at the University of California, Irvine, is set to be appointed as a scientific advisor by Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

But Phalen isn’t alone. Pollution denial is starting to appear outside the US, in countries where the air is much more toxic.

Denial in the US

Last week, the Washington Post and E&E News published a list of peopleexpected to be appointed as new scientific advisers by the EPA.

Some have operated within groups that have long denied climate change science. And now they are doing the same with air pollution.

For example, Stanley Young is a statistician at climate denial group the Heartland Institute. He wrote in a statistical blog in 2014 that “the science literature… is on the side that increased ozone and PM2.5 are not associated with increased deaths”. (He also states that temperature rise “is good for humans”.)

It’s not just the advisers either. As people donned masks in Delhi last week, Steve Milloy, member of Trump’s EPA transition team and Scare Pollution author was asking the twittersphere:

Milloy is right that nobody dies purely from air pollution (hence nobody has it on their death certificates), but there is broad scientific consensus that it is a causal factor that shortens lives.

The science is significantly more established than that on climate change, according to Dr George Thurston, co-author of the World Health Organisation’s Global Burden of Disease air pollution report.

He tells Unearthed: “The relationship between ambient air pollution exposure and human mortality is even more definitively quantified, with a broad scientific consensus, than the relationship between human activity and climate change, likely because death is a more definitively defined endpoint than climate change.”


But the sceptics are not just in the US.

For the last two years Prakash Javadekar has been India’s environment, forests and climate change minister.  Despite living in a country where the air is now believed to be more deadly than in China, Javadekar is sceptical about air pollution.

In May last year, he said a World Health Organisation report which listed over 30 Indian cities among the hundred most polluted globally was “misleading”. A month later, he dismissed research by the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology (IITM) and the US National Centre for Atmospheric Research looking at air pollution and mortality as a “so-called article” that was “incorrect” because it is not based on “ground study”.

And in February his colleague Anil Madhav Dave dismissed the findings of the State of Air Global Report, which attributed more than 100,000 yearly deaths to ozone pollution.

He said: “It is exceeding in some places, some day. But it is not a routine phenomenon. You cannot link early deaths to ozone.”

Schoolchildren in Tamil Nadu learn about the dangers of air pollution from nearby thermal power stations. Doctors and scientists warn that air pollution is causing irreversible damage to children's lungs across India. Photo: Sajan Ponappa / Greenpeace

Schoolchildren in Tamil Nadu learn about the dangers of air pollution from nearby thermal power stations. Doctors and scientists warn that air pollution is causing irreversible damage to children’s lungs across India. Photo: Sajan Ponappa / Greenpeace

“Every time a new study is published the question is raised as to whether it is backed by solid epidemiological evidence on the ground in India,” argues Bhargav Krishna, an air pollution expert at the Public Health Foundation of India.

“This is relevant as each time a question is raised, a debate ensues on the validity of the data, thereby delaying action. While the evidence in India could certainly be strengthened, there is a strong enough evidence base to take action now.”

India’s  environment ministry would not have to look very far for homegrown assessments. It could go to the health ministry, in fact.

Two years ago, it published a landmark report (pdf) (that Krishna contributed to).

The report opened by recognising evidence that air pollution is “the world’s largest single environmental health risk” and “a leading cause of death and disability in India”.

And it concluded that:

“We believe that reduction of both emissions and exposures are important to protecting public health… we very much recommend reduction of emissions as much as possible to reduce overall exposure”.


At least in Poland, where the air in some cities can be more toxic than in Beijing, government ministers are roughly on the same page.

Earlier this year, energy minister Krzysztof Tchorzewski flat out denied the link between air pollutants and premature death.

“Let’s not give in to demagogy, pollution is sometimes higher due to climate issues, but this is definitely not the reason why someone will live shorter” he told a transport conference in February.

But his fellow minister in the health department backed him up, albeit for different reasons. He chose instead to tell people to quit complaining because there are bigger problems to be worrying about.

Calling toxic air a “theoretical problem,” he argued that “our lifestyle is much more damaging – someone who breathes in air smoking a cigarette, with fumes and everything that comes with it, is in a position in which complaining about poor air quality is not credible at all.”

A view across the Konin mines to the Konin coal fired power plant in Western Poland. Around 5,300 annual deaths have been attributed to pollution from coal-fired power plants pollution Poland. Photo: Greenpeace

A view across the Konin mines to the Konin coal fired power plant in Western Poland. Around 5,300 annual deaths have been attributed to pollution from coal-fired power plants pollution Poland. Photo: Greenpeace

‘Policy paralysis’

In Poland, where coal is a disproportionate contributor to toxic particulates  (compared to other European countries where transport is blamed more), what the energy minister says matters.

And it has become a sticking point, according to Lukasz Adamkiewicz, who is part of a team of scientists developing an air quality index for Warsaw.

He says: “A huge majority of the people in positions of power at institutions – ministries, universities, hospitals – in Poland understand that air pollution does affect human health. They generally agree that we need to act, but they might not support policies openly if it’s directly connected with coal restrictions”.

In India and the US too, there are concerns that these narratives are having a detrimental impact on efforts to cut pollution.

“It is leading to policy paralysis,” says Krishna.

He is particularly concerned about the impact on Indian cities outside the capital; most of those in crisis are not even covered by the government’s air quality monitoring system.

“The nature of division between central and state government means that nobody is taking any responsibility. There are great swathes of the country facing air pollution that is just as bad, sometimes worse, than Delhi, but nobody is even talking about it.”

Meanwhile, in the US, Janice Nolen, assistant vice president at the American Lung Association (ALA), has already been noticing a difference since the Trump administration came into power.

The ALA is part of a coalition of groups now suing the EPA for delaying the implementation of smog standards. Nolan says that it is “unusual” for the government to miss the routine deadline.

“We are seeing a lot of things that were routinely done under previous administrations not being done under this one,” she says.

Source: UnEarthed. Reproduced with permission.


  • Alex Hromas

    I strongly disagree with the statement that nobody dies of air pollution. Half a century ago I was working in Switzerland and regularly heard on the BBC that killer smogs in London had caused by breathing failure. Do you claim that all these hundreds of deaths were put down as unspecified breathing failure? The problem was similar in the Rhur valley and the public outcry resulted in bans on small domestic fire places and phasing out of inner city power stations. The latter were replaced by large on coal field stations with ash filters and high stack velocities. Fixed the air pollution but gave us acid rain in Sweden and Norway

    • Ren Stimpy

      11 countries in Europe just pledged to stop burning coal by 2030. Austria, Belgium, Britain, Denmark, Finland, France, Italy, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Portugal, Switzerland. Improvements in the effectiveness of Europe’s emissions trading scheme won’t be too far away with the backing of these countries plus others. Countries like Poland need to start reading the writing on the wall or they’ll be caught off guard.

      • Joe

        Hi Alex, see my post above. The 11 that you mention from COP23 is growing all the time. Some 190 countries are represented at COP23. Could we see them all sign up to the ‘Powering Past Coal’ Alliance?

        • Joe

          ….oops…Hi Alex? I meant you, Ren…see my post to Alex.

        • Ren Stimpy

          It’s actually 20 worldwide including Mexico (Mexico should threaten to ‘build a wall’ unless the US lifts its game on emissions reduction) but the point I was trying to make was on heavy coal burner Poland – 11 of those “no coal by ’30” countries in the same zone as Poland. With the air in some Polish cities more toxic than Beijing it’s only a matter of time until the EU puts its foot down.

      • mick

        just watched fraudenturd pitching blue carbon to bev o’connor(abc) wriggled all over the shop when she grilled him about adani

        • Ren Stimpy

          Thanks I’ll make sure I catch it on iView.

        • Ren Stimpy

          Sounds like blue carbon is the new buzzword of an excuse to do diddly squat. Good to see the tradition being carried forward of Liberal party Environment Ministers flapping their jaws but achieving in effect sod-all.

          • mick

            yep another sound grab meaning sfa, encouraged by fairly much every one else though

    • Joe

      The Deniers of Climate Science must have opened up a new branch…The Deniers of Toxic Air. Just like Big Tobacco all those years ago lying to the smokers…’Smoking is good for you”. But it is the same old page from the playbook…’ business / money before human health / wellbeing. Just go and ask the good citizens of China, India, Mongolia, Poland how much they love breathing in the filth. At COP23 in Bonn, 27 countries and cities so far have together formed ‘Powering Past Coal’ Alliance which is as much about health as it is climate change.

  • Chris Fraser

    The deniers are Professors, no less. They must be taking the piss ….

  • George Darroch

    We’ll start getting “air pollution is good for your lungs” articles in The Australian soon.

    • riley222

      You betta believe it!

    • juxx0r

      If it’s that good for them, they wont mind having my share, I’ll get started making some nice mercuric arsenide tablets for them, yum-yum.

    • Peter Lyons

      Reminds me of “Toxic Sludge is Good for You” by Stauber et al (Google it!). Same outrageous lies/ black-is-white disinformation.

  • Kevan Daly

    The problem is that when the term “air pollution” is used it’s not clear whether the author is talking about CO2 or particulate matter and oxides of sulphur and nitrogen. In the absence of clarification the term shouldn’t be used. Ditto “clean coal”.

    • Ren Stimpy

      Ditto HELE – “””””high efficiency, low emissions””””” coal burners.

  • Ron Horgan

    Here is the wonderful world of “alternative facts”.
    Donald Trump lists “alternative facts” as one of his great achievements.
    He is actually proud that this bare faced lying is effective in disrupting a factual logical analysis. Herr Goerbels used the same tactic; the bigger the lie the more effective.
    My education has been wasted?

  • Pixilico

    Is he a contributing writer to Mad Magazine?