TITLE>WILL POLLUTION DO US IN? (24-Oct-2003)
WILL POLLUTION DO US IN?
No it won't, but ...
Pollution is a topic about which it is especially important to be
sensible, because it is very easy to be trapped into thinking about it
in terms of blame, or perhaps in terms of sin. There is a page
on ideology that
has something about imagined pollution.
There are many kinds pollution - real and imagined.
- Coal smoke
- Coal smoke was about the first kind of pollution to
become a political issue. As early as the 17th century, there were
attempts to forbid coal burning in England. The need for heat
overcame recognition of harm from coal smoke. It was a long time
before the advance of technology and prosperity made it possible to
eliminate death from coal smoke. There was a famous disaster in
London in the 1950s. In the late 1950s, it was forbidden to use
coal for domestic heating.
- Sewage in drinking water
- This gives rise to cholera and typhoid epidemics before
the discovery of the germ theory of disease These epidemics were an order
of magnitude larger than any health problems caused by the
kinds of pollution people in advanced countries worry about. Indeed
lack of sewage treatment still causes much death, especially of children,
in backward countries.
- Automobile emissions
- As a problem, this has always been an order of magnitude smaller
than was the problem of coal smoke. Regulation of emissions has
reduced it greatly. In my opinion, the California requirement for
zero emission vehicles is overkill. The costs will far outweigh the
- Heavy metals in the ocean
- There was a disaster in Minamata Bay, Japan in 1956 when
mercury emissions from a factory got into shellfish.
This led to a general worry about mercury getting into the ocean. However,
there is already 60 million tons of natural mercury in the ocean, and
humanity uses only 3,000 tons per year. Therefore, dilution is a sufficient
solution except for the possiblity of local concentrations as happened
in Minamata Bay. Many fish, specifically tuna and salmon, concentrate
mercury in tissues. The FDA suggests that pregnant women eat fish no
more often than (once a week?). This may be overconservative.
- Phosphates from detergent causing eutrophication
- Nitrates from fertilizer causing eutrophication
- Particulates from burning trash
- Domestic trash burning is now forbidden.
- Pesticides in foods
- This is an exaggerated hazard.
- Pesticides harming agricultural workers
- This has been serious, and maybe still is in some places.
- Black lung disease
- This shortened the lives of coal miners. I believe it is
mostly eliminated in the US by better control of dust in mines.
The anti-pollution movement that began with threats of imminent death
of life on earth has developed considerable momentum. For example,
in 1999 the EPA proposed to return air quality in national parks
and wilderness areas to the pre-industrial level. Fortunately,
the date for acomplishing this is 2064. Fringes of the movement
have gone much further. Predictions of disaster are common.
When political enthusiasm leads to excessive regulation, the costs
thereby imposed can kill more people than are saved by the
a strong argument that EPA air quality regulations
have been harmful to health.
"Hundreds of millions of people will soon perish in smog
disasters in New York and Los Angeles...the oceans will die of DDT
poisoning by 1979...the U.S. life expectancy will drop to 42 years by
1980 due to cancer epidemics."
- Paul Ehrlich, 1969, in _Ramparts_ magazine
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