Environmental Pollution: The US Is as Clean as It Gets

Other countries are much dirtier; let's focus on helping them
October 23, 2018 Updated: October 31, 2018

There’s a delightful phrase that describes the way America and most of the rest of the first world approaches environmental issues and related public health risks: first-world problems.

Assuming one does not have an ax to grind, any reasonable person evaluating all available data would be forced to conclude three things:

1. Efforts to reduce pollution of all sorts—assuming one does not consider carbon dioxide a pollutant, plants love that stuff!—have been tremendously effective in developed countries.

2. The residual risk to human health associated with continuing decreases in pollution grows increasingly infinitesimal, and

3. the leading causes of death in the industrialized world primarily involve individual choices like voluntary obesity, drug use, smoking, and other reckless behaviors.

The same cannot be said about most developing countries or the third world. People who live in large urban areas in nations like China, Mexico, and India are regularly exposed to levels of pollution—both natural and man-made—that would horrify people living in America and other industrialized nations.

The same is true across most of Africa.

Consider just one example: fine particulate, also known as PM-2.5 because the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) defines “fine” particulate as particulate matter less than 2.5 microns in diameter. Some studies suggest that inhalation of too much PM-2.5 can adversely affect human health because particles that size can bypass our natural filtration systems and reach the lungs, where they may cause some havoc among some portion of the populace. How much is too much is a subjective decision.

The Obama-era EPA chose to set the concentration of PM-2.5 officially deemed to be safe at a level that is just barely above natural background in most places and lower than background in others.

So, are PM-2.5 emissions a public health threat in America today? Perhaps, but the amount of PM-2.5 in the air that most of us breathe is so close to natural background, it’s hard to believe that further reductions in emissions will have much practical effect.

Comparing Pollution

The World Health Organization has published a study that compares global levels of air pollutants, including PM-2.5.

America, Canada, Australia, and most of Western Europe are in the low pollution zone. China, India, and Iran are on the opposite end of the spectrum. It seems to me that if you are legitimately interested in the health and welfare of every fellow human being residing on planet Earth, you’d spend a whole lot more time and money trying to help out those people living in heavily polluted foreign countries than trying to squeeze the last possible drop out of pollution reductions in nations that have cleaned up their acts.

And yet, we get it.

Environmental organizations like the Sierra Club and The Natural Resources Defense Council largely depend on donations from the wealthy and guilt-ridden. Their target audiences include people with a lot of money, a lot of good intentions and only a superficial understanding of the complex issues involved.

Billionaire Tom Steyer is the poster-boy for that mindset. I’m sure that Steyer honestly thinks he’s advancing a good cause—probably to offset his guilt as being so successful in the financial world.

However, here’s the deal Steyer: you can use your enormous wealth and influence to perhaps make the least polluting part of the world have a slightly less impact on the environment, or you can use your enormous wealth and influence to help countries with far greater environmental problems that affect the quality of life of billions.

Let’s not make this issue solely about environmental groups.

Fear Sells

Corporate America has identified and successfully exploited the environmental scare every bit as well, if not more effectively, than the environmental NGOs. “Sex sells” is an advertising truism. Fear also sells, probably to more effect.

A certain company that sells water filters is running a commercial in which test subjects are offered water that contains less than the allowable amount of lead in drinking water, currently 15 parts per billion (ppb) in the United States.

Alternatively, the test subjects can drink water that has been run through their water filter. The company is careful not to claim that the filtered water also contains lead, as it surely does. Chemists like yours truly are very, very good at finding tiny amounts of anything these days and concentrations less than 15 ppb are truly tiny.

Fairly presented, the water filter company ought to present the test subjects with a choice between drinking incredibly clean water that presents virtually zero public health risk or drinking incredibly clean water that also presents virtually zero public health risk but has been run through a consumable product that makes the company money.

It’s not just water filter companies of course.

There is a company that sells pet food bowls it calls non-toxic, which I can accept, while implying other bowls might contain toxic compounds. The problem here is that one can point to other bowls made out of stainless steel and rightly say that those bowls contain toxic compounds like chromium, lead, and manganese because those compounds are part of stainless steel alloys.

The “our bowls are safe” company also sells stainless steel bowls. The truth of the matter is that all stainless steel bowls are safe for your pets because there is absolutely no practical route for the toxic compounds in an alloy as incredibly stable as stainless steel to escape the alloy’s crystalline matrix.

There are companies that sell air filters that use ozone to “clean” indoor air, even though ozone is officially regulated as a pollutant by USEPA. The list goes on and on.

Bottom line: We’re exceptionally blessed to live in a nation as clean and healthy as America. Rather than wringing our hands about the infinitesimal and irrelevant continued environmental progress we might make, how about we get busy helping the rest of the world achieve the same amount of progress?

Richard J. Trzupek is a chemist and environmental consultant as well as an analyst at the Heartland Institute. He is also the author of ” Regulators Gone Wild: How the EPA Is Ruining American Industry.”

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.