Is George Bush against black children breathing? In the current political environment, no charge against President Bush is too poisonous or preposterous to make, including this one.
In promoting his new book, which basically accuses Bush of being a fascist, environmental activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has loosed this assault: "One out of every four black children in New York now has asthma. Those asthma attacks are triggered by pollution from power plants, which George Bush let off the hook." So potent is the notion of Bush denying children their very breath that John Kerry repeated the charge by implication in his speech at the Democratic Convention: "What does it mean when 25 percent of children in Harlem have asthma because of air pollution? America can do better, and help is on the way."
This ranks among the most transparently nonsensical charges against the president. Start with the fact that air pollution has been declining in recent years, as it has been for decades. Name your pollutant, it's been dropping: particulate matter, ozone, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, lead, whatever. Cleaner air -- the result of regulation and improved technologies -- should be hailed by environmentalists as one of their signature accomplishments. Instead, they pretend it doesn't exist.
In light of this, the question we should be asking is: Why is declining air pollution associated with increased rates of asthma? Because the nation is indeed in an asthma epidemic. Rates of asthma -- a chronic inflammatory disease of the lungs -- have more than doubled in the past 20 years. Cases have gone from 6.8 million in 1980 to 17.3 million in 1999. There is just very little evidence that air pollution, let alone George Bush, is causing anyone to get the condition.
Environmentalists point to a study in California showing that kids who played three or more team sports -- a small percentage of the total sample -- in high ozone areas were more likely to get asthma than similar kids in lower ozone areas. What environmentalists fail to mention is that kids overall were 30 percent less likely to get asthma in the high ozone areas than in the low ozone areas. American Enterprise Institute expert Joel Schwartz has crunched the California numbers and found that the asthma rate in many communities with lots of air pollution is lower than in communities with little pollution -- in other words, there is no consistent association of pollution with increased asthma rates.
Make no mistake: High rates of pollution can impair lung function. There is some indication that air pollution in Los Angeles in the 1970s and 1980s did just that. But the United States is now well below those highs, and most of the United States has always been below those old Southern California levels. Even massive reductions in air pollution from current levels would probably have little effect. Schwartz points to an environmentalist-sponsored study that concluded that a reduction in power-plant emissions of 75 percent would reduce hospital admissions for serious respiratory or cardiovascular conditions by a mere 0.2 percent to 0.6 percent.
It's a mystery why asthma rates have soared. Maybe kids spend more time indoors in houses that, since the energy crisis of the 1970s, are efficiently sealed off from outside air, and so trap irritants like dust mites, cockroach droppings and pet dander. Maybe increasing obesity and declining physical activity play roles. Some researchers have even pointed to the declining use of aspirin or the generally cleaner, less infectious world kids live in today, which might mean that their immune systems overreact to things like dust.
Given all of this, Kerry's implied pledge to end the asthma epidemic stands as one of the emptiest political promises of all time. Is he going to launch a crusade against pet dander if that's proven a major cause of the epidemic? But for Bush critics, all medical uncertainties and research imponderables disappear before their one all-purpose epidemiological insight: It is George Bush's fault.