I’ve been pondering Vivian E. Thomson’s book, “Climate of Capitulation: An Insider’s Account of State Power in a Coal Nation.” Thomson, a University of Virginia professor who served on the State Air Pollution Control Board during the Warner and Kaine administrations, stresses the high cost of air pollution in human health and mortality. Her treatise quotes various studies predicting that tighter air quality standards would yield major reductions in premature deaths.
I wondered, has anyone gone back to see if the expected reductions actually materialized? If society is going to spend billions of dollars to make gains in air quality, it would be nice to know that there actually is a payoff in the form of better health. My sense is that no one ever checks. If anyone does, the public never hears about it.
Out of curiosity, I ran a correlation analysis between two types of data: the pounds of toxic emissions reported to the Environmental Protection Agency and the 2016 incidence of cancer reported by the Centers for Disease Control, broken down by state. All other things being equal, one would predict that larger toxic emissions would be associated with a higher incidence of cancer.
As can be seen in the chart above, there is almost zero correlation — the R² is .0028 — between toxic emissions and the incidence of cancer in a state. (The chart omits Alaska and Nevada, huge outliers in terms of volume, which would have made the trend line to an even more negligible .0008.)
I readily concede that this is a superficial analysis. Among other factors one might consider would be the size of the state in square miles, on the theory that the same volume of toxic chemicals spread over more acreage would dilute human exposure and result in lower cancer rates. Also, any sophisticated comparison would account for differing toxic release profiles of the 50 states. The Toxic Release Inventory tracks some 143 chemicals, from acetaldehyde to zinc, some of which are more toxic and/or carcinogenic than others.
I publish the graph above not to dispute the idea that there is a connection between toxic chemicals and human health — of course there is — but to push back against the idea that spending billions of dollars tightening regulations on toxic chemicals ineluctably leads to better health outcomes. Perhaps the health benefits are everything Vivian Thomson purports them to be. But perhaps pollution abatement is subject to the laws of diminishing returns which means smaller benefits for larger expenditures. Conceivably, Virginians would see greater benefits to their health if they spent the money in other ways.
When Thomson criticizes Virginia’s “climate of capitulation” — the idea that industry exercises a controlling influence over the political and regulatory system — one might expect her to demonstrate that Virginia’s health is worse off as a result. We would expect to see (a) that states with “traditionalistic” political cultures like Virginia impose laxer pollution restrictions than “individualistic” and “moralistic” political cultures, and (b) that those laxer restrictions are reflected by worse health statistics. But in her book, she makes no effort to demonstrate such connections.
Indeed, Thomson misses what would seem to be an easy opportunity to do so. She quotes a Harvard study as stating that installing “Best Available Control Technology” at the Mirant coal-burning plant in Alexandria would avoid 40 deaths, 43 hospital admissions, 560 emergency room visits and 3,000 asthma attacks per year. Well, from her point of view, things worked out even better than adopting best-in-class technology — the Mirant plant shut down altogether, emitting zero pollution. Did asthma rates in Alexandria decline as advertised? According to a 2015 health profile, 21.4% of Alexandria 10th graders in 2014 had been diagnosed with asthma. I can’t find older data on the Web, but surely it exists. Was the asthma incidence lower than 10 years previously? If not, what does that tell us?
Thomson has total faith in the validity of the studies she cites, which, of course, align with her ideological proclivities. But if she wants people to accept her argument that Virginia’s regulatory policy is bad for Virginians, some of us would like to see the evidence.