Air Pollution Kills

In recent years I have substantially increased my estimate of the deadly nature of air pollution. It’s not that I had a contrary opinion earlier but the number and range of studies showing surprisingly large effects has raised this issue in relative importance in my mind. I would not have guessed, for example, that the introduction of EZ Pass could reduce pollution near toll booths enough to reduce the number of premature and low birth weight babies. I also find the following result hard to believe yet also hard to dismiss given the the accumulating body of evidence. Diane Alexander and Hannes Schwandt find that Volkswagen’s cheating diesel cars increased the number of low birth weight babies and asthma rates. Here are some details:

In 2008, a new generation of supposedly clean diesel passenger cars was introduced to the U.S. market.These new diesel cars were marketed to environmentally conscious consumers, with advertising emphasizing the power and mileage typical for diesel engines in combination with unprecedented low emissions levels. Clean diesel cars won the Green Car of the Year Award in 2009 and 2010 and quickly gained market share. By 2015, over 600,000 cars with clean diesel technology were sold in the United States. In the fall of 2015, however, it was discovered that these cars covertly activated equipment during emissions tests that reduced emissions below official thresholds, and then reversed course after testing. In street use, a single “clean diesel” car could pollute as much nitrogen oxide as 150 equivalent gasoline cars.Hereafter, we refer to cars with “clean diesel” technology as cheating diesel cars.

We exploit the dispersion of these cheating diesel cars across the United States as a natural experiment to measure the effect of car pollution on infant and child health. This natural experiment provides several unique features. First, it is typically difficult to infer causal effects from observed correlations of health and car pollution, as wealthier individuals tend to sort into less-polluted areas and drive newer, less-polluting cars. The fast roll-out of cheating diesel cars provides us with plausibly exogenous variation in car pollution exposure across the entire socio-economic spectrum of the United States. Second, it is well established that people avoid known pollution, which can mute estimated impacts of air pollution on health (Neidell, 2009). Moderate pollution increases stemming from cheating diesel cars, a source unknown to the population, are less likely to induce avoidance behaviors, allowing us to cleanly estimate the full impact of pollution. Third, air pollution comes from a multitude of sources, making it difficult to identify contributions from cars, and it is measured coarsely with pollution monitors stationed only in a minority of U.S. counties. This implies low statistical power and potential attenuation bias for correlational studies of pollution (Lleras-Muney, 2010). We use the universe of car registrations to track how cheating diesel cars spread across the country and link these data to detailed information on each birth conceived between 2007 and 2015. This setting provides rich and spatially detailed variation in car pollution.

We find that counties with increasing shares of cheating diesel cars experienced large increases both in air pollution and in the share of infants born with poor birth outcomes. We show that for each additional cheating diesel car per 1,000 cars—approximately equivalent to a 10 percent cheating-induced increase in car exhaust—there is a 2.0 percent increase in air quality indices for fine particulate matter (PM2:5) and a 1.9 percent increase in the rate of low birth weight. We find similar effects on larger particulates (PM10; 2.2 percent) and ozone (1.3 percent), as well as reductions in average birth weight (-6.2 grams) and gestation length (-0.016 weeks). Effects are observed across the entire socio-economic spectrum, and are particularly pronounced among advantaged groups, such as non-Hispanic white mothers with a college degree. Effects on pollution and health outcomes are approximately linear and not affected by baseline pollution levels. Overall, we estimate that the 607,781 cheating diesel cars sold from 2008 to 2015 led to an additional 38,611 infants born with low birth weight. Finally, we also find an 8.0 percent increase in asthma emergency department (ED) visits among young children for each additional cheating diesel car per 1,000 cars in a subsample of five states.

Another surprising result is that on a global scale air pollution reduces life expectancy more than smoking. In part, because a single individual can’t quit air pollution.

Globally, the AQLI reveals that particulate pollution reduces average life expectancy by 1.8 years, making it the greatest global threat to human health. By comparison, first-hand cigarette smoke leads to a reduction in global average life expectancy of about 1.6 years. Other risks to human health have even smaller effects: alcohol and drugs reduce life expectancy by 11 months; unsafe water and sanitation take off 7 months; and HIV/AIDS, 4 months. Conflict and terrorism take off 22 days. So, the impact of particulate pollution on life expectancy is comparable to that of smoking, twice that of alcohol and drug use, three times that of unsafe water, five times that of HIV/AIDS, and more than 25 times that of conflict and terrorism.


And Mexico City has one of the worst pollution problems, and here is what I proposed it could do.

Fake news. Air pollution has to be excessive before it has any measurable health effects. The claim that a extremely slight immeasurable increase in air pollution caused by VW diesels is hocus pocus slight of hand. It works like this: If drinking 3 gallons of water in an hour will kill you "then" drinking one quart in an hour will kill 1 person out of 24. See what I did there? THAT is exactly how they come up with these statistical nose dribblings and then publish it as fact. If they simply did this out of ignorance or stupidity I would just laugh at them. But they do it out of malice to harm the economy, to gain politically and to take your rights and wealth from you. It is identical to the AGW scam for those reasons.

Wow, that's telling him Anon. And you really establish your credibility by referring to the "AGW scam." Yeah, no global warming going on out there at all, is there? All these snowflakes. Anyway, I suggest you go drink about ten gallons of water in about ten minutes so that we do not have to hear from you any further, please.

Sorry was the math too hard and it offended you.

We DO have global warming. It began around 1850 when the cyclical global cooling ended. The current cyclical global warming will end when the next cyclical global cooling cycle begins.
What I said was that AGW was a scam, NOT that there was no warming. I just came back from kayaking on the river; THANK YOU global warming. In a few months I will be snowshoeing and skiing; THANK YOU global cooling. And, SUV's didn't cause either of these weather events.

Lol what a genius you are

Has anybody studied the health effects of the spectacular improvement in air pollution in Southern California from 1975 to c. 2005?

Yes. Here is one study.


Did they sell VW short before publishing?

I've seen a couple other studies go by. Can't find them now. One was that vw alone doubled the risk of a certain birth condition. Each illegal diesel being more polluting than thousands of compliant cars. The other studies tracked students as they changed schools, and found that if they moved downwind of a freeway, they suffered an IQ hit.

So sure, Alex's concern is probably legit, and maybe (conjecture) enough to end the Flynn Effect, all told.

"Did they sell VW short before publishing?"

After the billions in fines, I would guess that this isn't a shock to the stock holders. But it does open up grounds for a class action law suit.

That being said, I'm a little incredulous of the results. While VW (and to a lesser extent Mercedes-Benz,etc) certainly polluted far more than they were legally allowed to, the NOX numbers were still the same as cars sold in the early 2000's, and less than a large commercial truck of course.

All you have to do is travel abroad to a large city in a third world country to experience the aroma of living in a garage.

Bring your inhaler.

Underrated: Properly-sealing piston rings and catalytic converters.

Yes the study quoted is hard to believe.

I look forward to the follow up study now that these cars have been repaired / taken off the road, to show a reversal of effects. Will there be one?

I agree. When there's no mechanism, no reason why air pollution should cause low-birth-weight babies, I'm extremely skeptical. Apply the Hume Miracle Test: which is more likely, the supposed fact, or that the reporter is misled or lying?


It is all a lie.

German cars are very clean and Germans do not cheat. It is all a lie.

More signaling from the moderators.


1) do not protect themselves from environmental risk (which they disbelieve)

2) exhibit other crazy ideas

Cause or just correlation?

I'm messing with you, but it is also entirely reasonable to believe that a group of people who disbelieve environmental threats collectively accumulate more brain damage than those who avoid the same risks.

I wonder if they caused your brain damage, too.

I probably run my smoker too much. 🐖 shoulder went on 4AM yesterday, came off at 2PM. Yesterday's 👕 smells pretty smokey.

But I'm an American, darn it.

Do you only smoke pork or do you also smoke 🐑? Wait, you wouldn't smoke your girlfriend 🐑. 🐁

My 🤦 likes lamb chops which are better grilled than smoked.

Serious question. What caused more pollution: the manufacturing of replacement vehicles for the recall, or letting them drive and fixing the issue for new vehicles? The vehicles taken back by VW will be dismantled, the metal smelted and used in manufacturing somewhere, likely somewhere without any environmental regulations.

I don't believe those studies, they are agenda driven and trying to find correlations from unrelated collected data. That type of study is notoriously unreliable.

The vehicles were either fixed by upgrading the emissions system or bought back. The ones that were bought back were expected to be refitted with a new emission system and then resold as used cars.

"The company is also reselling the cars first to Volkswagen dealers. VW dealers will offer them with a two-year, unlimited certified pre-owned warranty from Volkswagen that other resellers cannot offer. All TDIs resold to the public will get a four-year, 48,000 mile extended emissions warranty.

The TDIs resold through Volkswagen dealers are likely to be the cream of the crop—newer cars with relatively few miles.

Other cars will be resold through used-car auction houses and may end up at local used-car lots."

Goddam communists! I just love the smell of leaded exhaust in the morning!

How many of the globe's countries plant more trees than they harvest?(and what five or ten species of trees and other plants do the most efficient jobs of absorbing carbon from the air?)

--BUT: how many species of carbon-absorbing plants will not tolerate the roving drought conditions that begin to show up in climatic and meteorological data? how many will die from insect infestation or disease prior to maturity?

How many forests get clear cut every day to keep Jeff Bezos supplied with pasteboard shipping containers? How many forests does Bezos have planted each day?

Et cetera.

US forest growth nationally has exceeded harvest since the 1940s. By 1997, US forest growth exceeded harvest by 42 percent. Much of this is due to enhancement of farming efficiency.

Cars are killing us, and not just in the carnage on the highways. It's car pollution that should get our attention, not other forms of pollution that get all of the attention because the polluters are bad business people rather than us. Or something like that. Am I being a cynic? Maybe.

Did you think you were going to live forever?

How many people die due to pollution caused by the energy required to run this blog?

The EPA clearly committed a 'high crime and misdemeanor' by not properly testing a 'green' car.

It's head, along with the POTUS during those
years should be prosecuted as fully as possible.

But that would violate the narrative so ...

Of course, there was NO air pollution when Barack Hussein Obama was working 24/7 eight years tearing Apart our country.

The Trump Tourette Syndrome in strong in you.

Dick, You do know, don't you, that Trump is reducing air pollution regulations in place during Obama's tenure. If you knew this and still made your claim, you need to look into your soul.

" Some of the world’s largest car manufacturers have delivered a unified message to President Trump: go back to the negotiating table on vehicle emission standards or risk crippling their industry.
Seventeen major automakers, including General Motors, Ford, BMW and Toyota, wrote in a letter released Thursday that the administration’s plans to weaken car pollution and fuel efficiency standards would hurt their bottom lines and could produce “untenable” instability.

“We encourage both the federal government and California to resume discussions and to remain open to regulatory adjustments that provide the flexibility needed to meet future environmental goals and respond to consumer needs,” the companies wrote.

The current regulations, put in place under President Obama, were designed to cut down on production of planet-warming greenhouse gases. They require car manufacturers to produce increasingly fuel-efficient vehicles so that by 2025 the nation’s cars and trucks would average more than 50 miles per gallon.""

from the LA Times.

So, to be clear, Trump isn't changing any existing standards. He's modifying standards that would have taken effect 6 years from now. Granted there's a ramp up to the standard, but there's nothing preventing the car companies with continuing with the ramp up and then halting when they meet or exceed the current specification.

And of course everything Tesla produces is way past the current mileage specification. Furthermore, Tesla Federal tax credit is under $2K at this point. Which while significant, does limit the amount of money that ICE vehicle makers have to spend on mileage performance increases. If they can't produce an ICE vehicle for less than what a Tesla costs, then they need to find ways to cut costs.

Granted there's a ramp up...that's a good one. Do you have any inside info on how long it takes to engineer for a specification.

But, here's another good one: there's nothing preventing a company from spending a lot of money to get to standard that is being lowered. Nothing preventing...except money and costs. And, if your rivals don't, you are the high cost producer. Econ 101.

" And, if your rivals don't, you are the high cost producer. Econ 101."

So I'm supposed to support the implementation of a higher level of regulation because certain companies will benefit from the higher levels of regulations more than other companies will? I don't consider that a particularly compelling argument.

Look, let me explain.

Let's say compliance with regulation that would have been implemented cost 100. And, it will take 6 years to get their.

The regulation is modified by Trump, and it will cost 60 to comply within 6 years.

You are the executive of an auto company: Do you choose to comply with the withdrawn regulation that costs 100 or the modified regulation costing 60.

Econ 101

I think it is a pretty compelling argument to pick the path that costs 60.

"Seventeen major automakers, including General Motors, Ford, BMW and Toyota, wrote in a letter released Thursday that the administration’s plans to weaken car pollution and fuel efficiency standards would hurt their bottom lines and could produce “untenable” instability."

If that's the case, I'm sure their shareholders, as well as other stakeholders, expect them to act to reduce risks (instability) and increase profits by continuing to follow the Obama era regulations. While Trump may reduce the regulations, nothing is stopping them from doing more than what the regulations require. If doing more than the revised regulations creates value, I expect the companies to act to create value.

See my reply to Rat above.

Also, "value" to the car company does not include, or consider, the externality. Society may value a cleaner car more than the manufacturer.

The quote from your first (9:20 am) response is that *weakening* the standards *hurts* their bottom line. The headline and quote implies that the car manufacturers want tougher standards. Though your linked article is about how they don't want 2 sets of standards: One for California and about a third of the states and another for the rest of the country. Though the answer should be obvious: they follow the tougher standard. Where is it stated that the weaker standards are the ceiling not the floor?

My response was that if that weaker standards hurts their bottom line and increases stability it is a win-win for them to continue following the tougher standards. Better bottom line, with less instability cost of capital should be lower, thus higher value. With tougher standards, less pollution, better efficiency -- less externalities.

Yes it's true that companies can lobby for weaker regulations because it will help their bottom line. But it's also true that companies want regulations. Haven't you heard about the bootleggers and baptist?

One estimate in Australia is, a standard internal combustion engine car causes $5,600 US damage to health through air pollution over its 10 year average lifespan. Obviously, if people had to pay for this externality we'd see a rapid shift to low emission and zero exhaust vehicles.

Fortunately our taxis, the vehicles driving the most kilometers in cities, are basically all hybrids or LPG vehicles and so emit lower than average air pollution.

Isn't $560/yr similar to gas tax in high tax countries? They tend to be importers reducing foreign dependence, but the number isn't that out of line.

A gas tax to subsidize national health, I like it.

Conservatives who have been breathing too many fumes already, may not.

You think $560/year would have a meaningful effect on car ownership? Are you serious?

(Of course, averaging across the entire fleet obscures the disproportionate impact of older vehicles. And conversely, as you point out, emissions probably don't matter as much in rural areas.).

Sure, put it up front in the purchase price and you'll see a shift towards less polluting vehicles.

If "particulate pollution reduces average life expectancy by 1.8 years," isn't it possible that the goods, services and amenities that generate this pollution also help increase lifespan by 1.8 years or more?

E.g. creating fuel or generating electricity produces pollution, but people would be dying off like crazy without heat and electricity. And no one with appendicitis wants to take an ox-cart to the hospital

I think it's difficult to estimate what you're saying though it is important. What the EPA does is estimate what it would to reduce air pollution from X to Y and then does that cost less than the value of saving Z human-life-years.

I think we should stay away from wild, politically-motivated exagerations. Much more research will be necessary before we can be sure automotive air pollution can actually shorten, in a significant way, human lives spans.

Maybe you could point out the flaws in the study.

If you can't, maybe you could STFU.

Be nice.

What convinced me was watching the local Ob data the year the local power plant went from coal to natural gas. We had one of the nicer coal setups with many, many steps taken to limit particulant output. The, shale gas became so cheap that they retired the coal plant for a nice new natural gas one.

Within a year, I was hearing about improved neonatal outcomes from OB. Nothing dramatic enough to publish, but it was clustering more downwind than upwind.

Frankly, this makes sense to me. Particulant material irritates the lungs which triggers inflammation. Inflammation is generally bad for kids en utero. Reducing this should lead to small decreases in early delivery and low birth weight.

For my own patients, I saw a noticeable drop in asthma ED visits. Again, nothing wild and crazy, but enough to pass a spitball test.

When I have worked oversees, the health impacts from being near major air pollution sources is astonishing. Likewise, I could often tell at a glance which families heat their homes with wood or dung compared to those who use kerosine.

If only we had a technology that could replace all those horrid coal plants that Europeans are still building. Something with geographically stable fuel, the ability to provide all weather supply, and the safest track record of any power system. Oh, and I would like it to not only emit trivial amounts of air pollution, it should also be carbon neutral. If only we could power our electricity turbines with nuclear power.

Air pollution is one of the reasons I despise professional greens (with notable exceptions). While they have been pissing around opposing nuclear and natural gas, people have been dying, more people than are currently projected to die from bad case global warming scenarios.

I am a big fan of nuclear power precisely because it saves people's lives. Lots of them.

But best, I think, not to build them on geology that's especially vulnerable to earthquakes or Tsunamis.

I can't be pro-nuclear because I don't understand the economics of nuclear power. But I can be anti-anti-nuclear for the sort of reasons you mention.

Yes and no. Even with the major disasters, nuclear is still safer than other forms of power. Given the sorts of air pollution effects replacing coal with nuclear could still average a Chernobyl every 15 years and be much safer.

With newer designs we can manage a lot better. For instance we could have the whole reactor vessel float in a containment pool with no direct mechanical coupling to the ground, that makes it earthquake proof. Or we could require minimum elevation requirements for back up power generators. Or use gravity storage for coolant. Or we could simply actually got on with either reprocessing our spent fuel or stop playing politics with Yucca.

Even with "disasters" nuclear is safer that coal for places like California or Japan. With modern engineering I would be happy to live next door.

California has no coal generation. We imported ~4% for SCE in 2017, the most recent year published.

We used ~9% nuke power, but as you may know, we have been plagued by excess costs.

At what cost?

Wealthy countries can certainly throw money at politically favored technologies ... but we could save a lot more lives (and make a lot more headway on the "existential crisis" of global warming) by using those funds for more immediate rewards.

I am also of the opinion that the electricity used in your imports should be considered and in that respect Cali still has a lot of coal to kill.

Coal is rapidly declining in usage because it's marginal costs are close to the costs of natural gas, wind, solar, etc and obviously the emissions controls add to the total costs. So, anonymous' numbers are likely correct.

Granted, the CA numbers are a bit of a shell game, with coal plants close to the border exporting east and other plants further away exporting west. Of course, power is just added to the grid and in reality, plenty of coal powered electrons hit the CA grid.

But the big picture, is that coal usage is rapidly declining across the board from a combination of lower cost competitors and tighter emissions requirements.

For southern California I think that 4% is a fair net consumption. Which is significant, but certainly not large.

Probably, it was always expensive to ship coal over the Rocky Mountains so the West coast never relied on Coal to the same degree as most of the rest of the company.

Here's a dynamic map of US 48 state power plant production.

Even with "disasters" nuclear is safer that coal for places like California or Japan.

Rationally that may well be so. But if a disaster were to lead to a country shutting down many of its nukes the disaster has been horribly costly. So don't build in spots where you are asking for trouble.

When things go wrong, will we have to evacuate cities and disrupt economic activies. Oh, well, I'm sure some people will make lots of money on it. Who cares about consequences?

"When things go wrong, will we have to evacuate cities and disrupt economic activies"?


Google Centralia. Coal fires have caused far more economic dislocation than nuclear. We have confirmed cases of coal seams burning and requiring evacuation for centuries (e.g. in Germany a coal seam burned from 1476 until 1860). Massive economic dislocation is a far greater risk from coal fires than ever has been from nuclear.

Further if the entity building your nuclear power plant is not a communist state with terrible planning, a horrid safety culture, and ulterior motives the actual amount of land endangered is pretty minimal.

Last I heard, total compensation for Fukushima-Daiichi were estimated to come in around $100 billion. That is less than the annual bill for global asthma from coal plants, by a lot.

So no, I don't favor maintaining power systems that cause us to evacuate cities and that disrupt economic activities. Which is why I like nuclear power.

Yeah right, because coal and nukes are the only options.

(Trivia: 60% of Canadian power is hydro.)

Yeah I know. And I know that when Canada was looking to expand hydropower and sell the excess down to Boston the Sierra Club came out in opposition.

I use nuclear as an example. It is plentiful. It can operate in most places in the world. It has a very long, very proven safety record.

Hydro is something I think we should likewise invest more efforts into using. I just hate the fact that we literal examples of professional greens advocating for hydro decommissioning and the end result being more reliance on coal that previous trajectory.

Because the truth is that in most cases the marginal replacement for a foregone hydroplant or nuclear plant is not solar or wind. It is natural gas if you frack and coal if you don't.

I mean seriously Europe is still building new coal plants. What the heck? I am basically in favor of anything-but-coal, yet opposition to hydro, nuclear, and the rest tends to result in freaking brand spanking new coal plants in frigging 2019.

I mean seriously the last coal plant built in the lower 48 is like ten years old and was a terrible idea even then. Building new coal out to 2020 is just garbage.

I judge on results. If your preferred policy results in preserving coal power in real world application (e.g. Germany), I would suggest your policy sucks. We have it within our means to phase out coal multiplicatively faster than our current timelines just by using nuclear, natural gas, and hydro more aggressively ... yet we face the real world outcome being most likely avoiding these and keeping more coal than we otherwise would.

Sorry, I prefer not having more dead children because politics is suborned by lies and misinformation.

'It has a very long, very proven safety record.'

And a very long, very proven record of massive cost overruns. But I'm sure you were aware of that when using nuclear as an example.

Why wouldn't California want more nuclear plants like this one? 'In a new setback for the U.S. nuclear power industry, Edison International said Friday that it would permanently close two reactors at its San Onofre plant in California, ending a contentious battle over whether the units could be repaired and operated safely after a Jan. 31, 2012, steam leak revealed cracks in the steam generator system.

The two reactors, built at a cost of about $2.1 billion, once provided 17 percent of the power delivered by the utility, and the loss of the units has forced Edison International and its Southern California Edison subsidiary to rely more heavily on renewable energy sources and new supplies of natural gas. ..... Although the San Onofre reactors were licensed to operate until 2022, critics said that the utility and its main contractor, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, had hidden risks of a new steam generator system they installed in reactor unit 2 in 2009 and unit 3 in 2010 and that Edison needed a license amendment, a potentially lengthy process.

The new system, designed to last 20 years, failed in less than 2 after vibrations caused many of the 9,727 heavy alloy tubes in each steam generator to rub against one another. Unit 2 was already closed for maintenance, but unit 3 was shut down after an 82-gallon-a-day leak was discovered. '

This link seems to provide a decent overview of just how good the engineering involved actually was -

"The new system, designed to last 20 years, failed in less than 2 after vibrations caused .."

This is indeed the "backyard experience" that has made me doubt nuclear promises.

True (if you mean electrical generation). But mostly because of Quebec and BC who produce 90%+ of their electricity from hydro and then export much of it to the US. Ontario produces 60% (58.6% in 2018) of its electricity from Nuclear. Some gets exported but most of it is for domestic provincial use. Given the problems developing the Muskrat Falls project Newfoundland and Site C in BC, it may be too early to count Nuclear out just yet. Especially if we switch to molten salt reactors that burn up existing nuclear waste as fuel.

Don't believe any environmentalist who talks about the wonders of renewable energy. They are lying. As soon as there is a project put forward they start trying to stop it from happening.

You can always find the odd environmentalist who prefers desert tortoises to solar, but when you do that you haven't even shown that most environmentalists split that way. Let alone most people.

Trivia, I went on a Sierra Club hike once, and a guy held forth on the benefits of nuclear. No one got upset. I acknowledged that many of his points were correct.

Then as now I'm more neutral, more refuse to be excited by another San Onofre, than anti as avocation.

Someone should tell the Japanese evacuation unnecessary.

While we plan to chase rainbows and dismantle our energy sector, China keeps stealing our industrial plants and jobs. Nuclear energy is a dangerous, expensive and corrupt solution for a problem we don't have at all.

About 95% of the evacuation in Fukushsima was unnecessary.

They must be feeling relieved now. Seriously, is there any reason to hurt America by dismantling our energy systems?

That was fine until it became a political litmus test that a single *technology* must be the answer.

You're smarter than that. Electricity generation is a portfolio problem, and more than one portfolio works.

I am fine with many technologies.

Natural gas from shale fracking, for instance, has saved massive numbers of lives and been the single most economically viable method to reduce both greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution. But that is also opposed by a lot of professional greens.

Then there is hydro power. Arguably the most dangerous form of electrical power generation in the world, it nonetheless is exceedingly safe in the US, generates substantial clean energy, and the can provide a ready means of "storing" power by increasing head levels to complement more variable power sources. And yet there are repeated demands by professional green activists to close these. In fact in a period of rising capacity factors, total hydropower generation has remained stagnant.

The truth is that we live a politically charged time. Nuclear, natural gas, and hydro all have broad based right wing support. They mitigate, massively, the health impacts of coal and are politically viable. Worse we are not just talking about building new capacity, we are talking about scrapping new capacity. Early decommissioning of German nuclear power basically wiped away a decade worth of investment in clean energy.

Every moment activists fight to close nuclear power plants is a fight to increase air pollution and child deaths. Sorry, but just because you have a plan to eventually, some day fix the problems with your preferred technology does not mean that I need to excuse children your actions will kill today.

The weirdest thing for me is that the American right has always been down with large-scale industrial and government subsidized nuclear.

For me, the new (proposed) commercial scale molten salt plants sound much more interesting.

And a rich entrepreneur can just do them right?

Large scale nuclear helps defray military costs either directly through fuel cycle infrastructure or through related industrial capacity. If the only customer of neutron absorbing piping is the USN, it gets vastly more expensive.

As much trouble as the military-industrial complex can be, it is also one of those things does make a military stronger.

The other side of it is that the vast, vast majority of the costs for nuclear are compliance related. In their heart of hearts, the American right wing would prefer to reduce the compliance burden rather than subsidize ... but this is electoral kryptonite so they opt for a less-bad alternative to the status quo.

Hopefully, molten salt will work and be viable. But I would far rather have a government that rapidly helps build out "not coal" then spends a fortune every year on avoidable asthma and the like.

It’s the overt abandonment of the narrative due to mood affiliation.

Premise (naive, completely ignores game theory vis-à-vis countries choosing “defect” ): global warming is a looming disaster, economically, ecologically, and has associated tail risks that we don’t fully comprehend. Humans are bad at evaluating tail risks. America should thus devote trillions in resources immediately towards mitigation.

Predicted response if liberals believe premise is true: institute a hefty and rising CO2 tax, combined with a subsidized electrification effort and subsidized transition away from coal and towards nuclear energy and natural gas (with small scale wind and solar to top off base load). Institute CO2 import tax and pollution tax to correctly price consumer products with respect to international environmental externalities. Use satellite imagery and GEOINT to enforce tax regime. Better a nuke powered factory at home churning out an electric SUV than a coal powered factory in Mexico churning out gas guzzlers!

Actual response: Continue efforts to shut down all current nuclear energy production in US. Continue efforts to prevent new hydro or nuclear power plants via lawsuit and threat of lawsuit (see California). Demand a federal job guarantee, a shut down of all natural gas production, and immediate cessation of oil drilling as part of any climate legislation.

It’s a joke. For those of us actually concerned with global warming, it’s refreshing to acknowledge that the Democrats absolutely do not care about it in the least. Their ideologue fellow travelers are busy shutting down every nuclear power plant they can find in Europe.

It was never about science. It was always about sacred versus profane.

In a way "liberals" should prefer the statist solution. A national nuclear power grid is much more Soviet than it is libertarian. After all, who designs, builds and operate it? A state mandated monopoly. Who sets both rates and safety rules? The state. Who brokers between the monopoly and the state when the two come in conflict? The state again.

And darned if the same "inverted capitalists" who prefer that don't also hate on small scale and entrepreneurial solar and wind. Where the government doesn't mandate much, and mostly offers "market incentives."

So why do I prefer small scale distributed solutions? Because I'm a capitalist, and not a socialist pushing centralized power.

Either astonishingly ignorant or intentionally spreading misinformation.

You’ve conjured up a fictitious boogeyman in your mind that works tirelessly to destroy wind and solar. Insane and unhinged. Kulaks 2.0? If we pass a law that says it works..

Meanwhile, California is shutting down nuclear power plants as fast as humanly possible, via endless lawsuits. It’s not the market shutting them down. And it’s the threat of endless lawsuits and lawfare which prevents the best hope of decarbonization of the electrical grid.

Oh well. You’d think Dems would believe in the power of government solving coordination problems to prevent catastrophe. Turns out the Democrat Party believes in the power of lawsuits and magical thinking.

Tojo once asked his engineers why the IJN couldn’t simply fly their Mitsubishi Zeroes on air power. The Dems ask why our entire electrical grid plus transportation can’t simply run on solar.

Alright dudes, turn in your science card. You’re on par with “the world is 6,000 years old” now.

So anyway, you're right. If the Democrats were *real* communists they'd be all over a national socialized electrical generation system, with safety both managed and guaranteed by the state.

Not that I disbelieve your story, but babies aren't breathing coal dust in utero. Would they really be exposed to that much of it via umbilical exchange, or whatever the correct term is?

The are being exposed to none. But the more important question is what is mom being exposed to. Inflammation has systemic effects from sequestering iron stores to raising temperatures to changing insulin sensitivity. Mom being exposed to pro-inflammatory stimuli results in her releasing cytokines that have many downstream effects.

Another mechanism is that if mom "gets sick", baby is more likely to be born prematurely. We are not sure of all the mechanisms, but generally the healthier mom is, the longer the kid stays inside. If you shave a day off gestation, you get a lower birth weight. For some percentage of the kids, you end up having no effect ... but this means there are kids who have large effects.

We still do not know exactly why moms go into labor early (we know many risk factors but not sufficient signal transduction to truly prevent it) nor do we know entirely what provides optimal nutrition to cross the placental barrier. High level theory talks about conserving maternal resources and preventing poorly timed birth; I don't know how well those hold up to data, but it definitely is the case that exposure to pro-inflammatory things (be it air pollution, mom's ulcerative colits, or a URI) are associated with worse fetal outcomes.

Most likely air pollution has multifactorial role. What we do know is that there is a dose response curve with strong stochastic relationships. With millions of kids being born every year odds ratios of 1.01 to 1.05 (my spitball/vague recollection) would mean massive numbers of effected children (e.g. far more than all the kids under 10 years old shot by firearms every year).

Which is why every dam decommissioned too early or every nuclear power plant closed prematurely is such a tragedy. We are killing a statistical number of kids for basically no improvement on the goals we are pursuing.

Interesting stuff, thanks.

Sure, I am as about pro fracking as they come, plus I hate coal burning power generation as well, but you are disturbing me with your strong views on correlations to low birth rate, claiming significance and then saying it it not strong enough to publish. Same with your alcohol data, very very strong conclusions but with no data. I really hate anecdotal evidence presented with strong conclusions, can’t you either temper your conclusions or provide some better statistics?

And my final point, which again is against my personal feelings, is that some of the most highest air polluted areas have the longest life expectancy, this is like saying smoking is bad for your health but smokers will live longer than none smokers, it demands explanations.

That's a fair point. Pittsburgh, for example, has long had some of the worst air pollution rates in the country, with it's coal-burning steel mills and coal burning power plants, but to my knowledge, life expectancy, premature birth rates, and such aren't significantly off from the national average. Asthma rates are, in fact, about 10% higher, though, based on a quick google search.

Allegheny County (home of Pittsburgh) reports an official low birthweight rate of 9.0% for 2017. US average is 8.3%. Given Allegheny's demographics (above national average college completion rates, more non-Hispanics whites/fewer African Americans, etc.) we would naively expect Allegheny County to come in below national average, not 8% above national average.

Preterm birth rate for Allegheny is 9.9% vs 9.6% for the US as a whole. Again, with Allegheny's demographics this number should be lower based on what we know about the demographics of pre-term birth.

I don't know their data all that well or if I should looking more at collar counties, but the data does indeed show a reasonably weak effect size with robust analysis.

Proper analysis, of course, would require a lot more confounding checks and the like, but we have been seeing this data pop up in various forms for decades. Odds ratios that are significant, but not large. Small effect sizes on large populations. This adds up to lots of lives, but it is very hard to publish this sort of thing in any sort of meaningful journal.

It is not strong enough to publish because it has already been done.

We have been finding robust correlation between air pollution levels and all manner of neonatal health markers for literally decades. Going through and demonstrating that our local data is unique enough to get published is a lot of work. We have to get consent to use birth records. We have to get consent to use geographic identifiers.

I suspect, that our local data was in the 5 - 10% range for effect size overall with a few larger spikes for airways downwind of the worst of it. This is not something that is easy to publish because it is generally already assumed to be true.

Could we publish it? After somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 or 50 man-hours working it up, absolutely. But we don't think that is a good use of a few thousand dollars. This isn't a question of good enough data, it is a question of cost effectiveness.

I just checked the one abstract - direct quote;

"no statistically significant effect modification was evident for the risk of TLBW associated with ambient air pollution.

The current epidemiologic evidence is scarce, but suggests that pregnant women who are smoking, being underweight, overweight/obese or having lower SES are a vulnerable subpopulation when exposed to ambient air pollution, with and increased risk of having a child with TLBW. The limited evidence precludes for definitive conclusions and further studies are recommended."

You have to remember the power needed to find these effects is a large because we are talking about something which has a weak, though widespread effect. Yes some of these studies are underpowered and do not have enough data to cross statistically significant thresholds on their own. This is particularly true when you remember that "no significant" comes at a threshold. It still is over 90% likely to be a real association (rather than random chance).

But people do publish the sort of data we see and that the meta-analysis shows odds ratios that are respectable.

For instance crunches a number of the sort of thing I do not think it worth our time to pursue. The compiled odds ratios for low birth weight are 1.05 (0.99–1.12) per 10 μg/m3 PM2.5 to 1.10 (1.05–1.15) per 20 μg/m3 PM10. This suggests that PM2.5 is only significant at something like a 90% threshold while PM10 is significant at classical levels.

The question is not is air pollution correlated with poor birth outcomes, that is generally accepted to be true by the profession because of many publications and studies. The question is if this correlation is causal or if it is just confounding things like race, SES, or the economic health of the country?

Ob/Gyn is not my field so I am not the expert to go into great detail as to why this correlation is accepted by the field. Suffice it to say that people I trust and my spotchecking of the literature is sufficient for me to suggest that there is a correlation that is generally accepted by the profession. This makes the utility of publishing low in the eyes of journal editors.

Again, if the evidence is weak, why the strong conclusion? Actually I see this often with doctors, they provide very strong advice often based on limited or none-existent evidence. Maybe it is actually part of their skills, because they need to convince people to follow their advice, but it does make them look arrogant.

It sounds like you are misunderstanding evidence and effect.

Suppose I had a coin. I said it was fair, but you disbelieved me. How many flips would need to establish that it is indeed unfair?

Well that depends on how unfair of a coin we are worrying about. For something that is pure heads we can flip it 5 times and see the run of straight heads and say that there is <5% of that happening randomly so the null hypothesis is rejected with typical confidence - the coin is likely unfair. Now we need to account for some fun statistical things so even with a completely unfair coin we need to go larger numbers of flips (e.g. 5 in row is unlikely, but 5 in a row somewhere in a sequence of flips is likely).

Worse suppose the coin is biased 2:1 heads. We need a lot of flips to count out results more than two standard deviations from the mean. This value grows slowly with the number, n, of flips.

Roughly, signal : noise increases with the square root n. Flipping my unfair coin might well take a few hundred flips to cross various thresholds for significance.

Okay, so what about the air pollution? Well birthweight is a bell curve and there is a lot of known variability. Was there gestational diabetes? Are there multiples? What is the mid-parental weight? Plus we have a bunch of stuff that looks like just plain noise. The range for typical babies is roughly 2 kilos wide. The effect from air pollution is around 200 grams.

This is a low signal to noise ratio because the effect is small. Proving that this coin flip is biased 10% towards heads takes a lot of statistical power to establish.

Statistical power roughly tracks with the square root of the sample size. If I pooled all the data from everywhere I have hospital privileges, I might not get a large enough sample size to say that the effect is statistically significant. The quality of my evidence can be impeccable - zero bad data entries, no patients lost to follow-up, no incomplete data in the set - and yet the raw numbers say I need a larger sample population to cross the typical p thresholds.

So what's the solution? I publish my study showing that the effect looks real ... but does not cross a completely arbitrary significance threshold. Others publish their studies. And then eventually we do a meta-analysis which does some stats to combine all our studies. Now we get a really large sample. And even if none of the original studies individually crossed the significance threshold, the whole set does.

Why do we care about small effect sizes? I mean we are talking about maybe a 10% impact.

Because that's enough to kill a kid. And the at-risk population is measured in millions.

This is how most of medicine works. You get sick, you go to the doctor. Most of the time you would get well on your own (e.g. up to 60 million Americans may get influenza this year, but even in a bad year these days only 50,000 will die from it). Teasing out if influenza is more likely to make you die from stats is actually hard - too many people get better without treatment and too few people die. But when you get a good look at the population that dies any given year and you start collating a lot of data you can say with great certainty that influenza this year has X odds ratio of killing you. X will never be large, but it is highly significant.

Or think about it this way. How likely is anything - cancer, gunshots, heart disease, etc. - going to be to kill you? Less than 50%. Any individual malady is just not that likely to have a strong effect size in the general population.

We try not to use population level data because it is hard to get good results. That said, for things like air pollution, where basically the whole population is exposed to some degree, it is really the only way to capture the full risk burden.

So we look for significant risks with small effect sizes. Not easy. Not exciting. Not a great publication candidate once it has been done.

But perfectly valid science.

And at the end of the day, people come to me and ask me what I think is the best way for them or their loved ones not to die. I give them the best answer the data allows and if they want them, I try to give a sense of the error bars. This is how everything in medicine works, very few things have sufficient simplicity to avoid troublesome error bars.

This means I have likely killed patients with incorrect advice. But waiting for certainty means that I would kill even more patients. So I do the best I can with what I have.

An earlier post suggested that coal particles cause lung inflammation, which causes lots of health problems, including low birth weight for babies of women with lung inflammation. I have no idea whether it is true, just thought you should be aware of the possibility.

You cannot compare one article to the other. The one about baby low birth weight has an spatial link between babies and car exhaust fumes. The link is "living along a busy highway" where people is clearly exposed to a relatively high concentration of pollutants.

The second article (link here provides no spatial link between emissions and people. It goes fully pseudo-science right at the start in this part: "Car exhaust is omnipresent on a daily basis across the entire population. Even for the wealthiest members of society, there is no escape from car exhaust."

I dare to say pseudo-science because the omnipresence of NOx and particulate matter (PM2.5) is not justified anywhere in the article. In reality, air quality is not homogeneous in an urban area. Factors such as highways, parks, residential areas, topography, and regional winds contribute to an heterogeneous distribution of pollutants in the air of any city. So, pollutants from diesel may be found everywhere, albeit not in the same concentration as "living along the busy highway". If people is not exposed to high pollutant concentrations, how can they justify the impact on health outcomes?

FWIW, I think Alex cited two a dozen recent studies which find similar effects.

It may be a big data thing. In the sense that now that we can process the datasets we find things that were there all along.

Maybe somebody should mine America's supermarket checkout receipts vs health outcomes.

For years I've been well served for by the approximation that all fashionable environmental problems are either lies or exaggerations. I'm interested to learn that this might be a counter-example. Can you direct me to any sceptics so that I can see the strength of their counterarguments?

Anyway on the Precautionary Principle in Britain we must immediately ban those fashionable wood-burning heaters.

It's all about the Benjamins.

If air pollution is so bad, why China wants all those polluting-producing industries and cars?

It's all about the Benjamins

>the introduction of EZ Pass could reduce pollution near toll booths enough to reduce the number of premature and low birth weight babies.

There is absolutely no way on God's Earth that this is true.

Doesn't that bother you? At all?

Or is it ok to repeat this absurd claim, merely because it sounds interesting?

perhaps you don't understand how toll booths work? hint: they create extremely localized traffic jams

And here I was hoping to live to age 84 instead of 82.

Seriously though, yes, air pollution is bad for us but when was the last time an economist said we should roll back globalism?


1) Have you bought a Tesla yet?
2) When will Elon Musk be on “Conversations with Tyler”?

Mr. Econotarian,

Why are you addressing Tyler here? This post was put up by Alex Tabarrok. Are you unable to read? Just how stupid are you?

In a blog post several weeks ago Cowen suggested we ban bicycles in urban areas because there were so many deaths of those riding them. I suggested that we should encourage the lard asses riding around in cars to use bicycles instead (to reduce the lard if not deaths). Tabarrok is on board. Well, maybe not on board a bicycle, but getting the lard asses out of their cars.

Have you mentioned this to your wife?

The US would probably benefit from emplacing a particulate tax. Particulates are far more dangerous than CO2. And it would work far better than the patchwork quilt of regulations we have now.

Yes. One of the most depressing things about our air pollution debate is that the distinction between NOx, PM, and VOC-type air pollution and CO2 is enormous and important. But our political process tends to elide this distinction. (Witness this thread.) NOx, PM, and VOC pollution is far easier to regulate, can be reduced in a much shorter timeframe with much lower-cost technology, and has a much more proven health impact than "climate change".

Here are some things that would help reduce the actually definitely bad air pollution:

1. Stop burning coal. Burn oil or natural gas instead. Or use some modern hippie energy source like solar, wind, nuclear, or whatever. Anything but coal. This is not a climate change issue; it's a health issue. If some future technology emerges that has 4 times the GHG emissions of coal but none of the PM, mercury, NOx, or other pollution, then we should embrace it completely.

2. Tighten emissions regulations on passenger cars. Forget about or at least quit increasing CAFE standards; they aren't as important as lowering NOx, PM, and other pollutants. Implement the proposed PM tax.

3. I'm drifting into the less feasible now, but pay China and India a billion dollars for each coal power plant they destroy. Send them free natural gas or oil, or just dollars, to replace them. Maybe even send over another billion if they build a nuclear plant in place of the coal one.

4. What else?

Do it the easy way - deregulate/subsidize natural gas production until it buries coal as utterly uncompetitive on price even in China. Ideally this would involve fracking throughout Europe, Canada and the US on a grand scale, but China is price sensitive to coal.

Another simpler option is just to monitor coal emissions from satellite data and levy an air pollution tariff on their exports. I mean worse case scenario is that we just monitor particle counts via embassies and overflying aircraft then tariff accordingly. If China "hide the emissions" from our sensors they may not actually being going into the atmosphere. It is just too easy to tack particulent emissions for countries to cheat much and it is far easier to fake destruction of some industrial plant to only rebuild it elsewhere. Coal plants are already over a billion bucks in capital costs so paying them to destroy plants is pretty underwhelming.

A particulent tariff is relatively easy. We tax American consumers either way, but this provides a much more direct mechanism for behavior to change (e.g. stop buying from polluting countries).

A carbon tax, particulate tax, etc., will be seamlessly securitized and passed on to consumers and will not reduce the level of carbon or particulates. If you want to reduce air pollution then just outlaw the pollutants above a certain amount, like we outlaw lead in paint and asbestos in buildings. And if that means you don't get to drive a V8 and take 12 airline flights a month, too bad.

" will be seamlessly securitized and passed on to consumers "

That's the whole point. So people can make a rational individual choice.

"just outlaw the pollutants above a certain amount"

Sure, law by bureaucratic dictate. That works well in China and not as well in Europe. But it's clearly an authoritarian approach. Sometimes that's justified, but not always.

"law by bureaucratic dictate"--ever read the US constitution--unlike Russia, we have a Congress which must pass tax laws.

Are you not familiar with US law? What country do you live in?

Sounds like you are proposing a quota system. For someone who follows an economics blog, you seem to take a non-standard approach to the problem.

Quotas don't capture tax revenue and suffer from deadweight loss. At least a pigovian tax captures tax revenue that could (but probably not) be used to offset any negative externalities.


Given the real complexity of the issue and the number of variables that are uncontrolled in this analysis, to conclude anything like what you are accepting can be classified as junk science and massive p hacking con job.

Given a large medical database, I could do a correlational type analysis and "prove" that the last digit of your SS number "causes" cancer. Assuming the database has at least 100 types of cancer and on each test, I have a 5% chance of obtaining a statistically significant (95% confidence level) "proof" that the 9 in your SS number "caused" cancer Xy (where there are about y different cancers proven to be caused by your "cursed" SS number) . Of course, another database would give different results and we know it is all BS. However by using similar cases where you can draw arbitrary boundaries with no possible replication like was done around all the "cancer clusters" that never went anywhere beyond legal extortion payoffs and making people sick with the nocebo effect the pushers of the con claim a scientific finding that you can't replicate.

The thought of obtaining a valid result on a factor only changing 2% without having direct mechanisms is insane in cases where you can arbitrarily change spacial dimensions of the test group (who is included and who isn't) until you get your statistical significance. You wouldn't make such a mistake on an economic analysis of global economy where a 2% change in a (mean, median, maximum, minimum ???) variable changed another variable without a direct connection by 2% and claim they are related (especially where those variables were complex -- the cheating was on the NOx variable, not necessarily the PM2.5 variable).

Keep in mind that these air pollution numbers vary over many orders of magnitude and there has been dramatic long term change for the better. If the linear claim made were true, someone like me who was raised in LA at smog levels and PM 2.5 level that made your eyes burn and lungs hurt (but as a kid, I kept going anyway), I should be dead and we would see a dramatic difference between born and raised in LA and some hick city in the NE US. I have seen no such analysis of birthplace vs health statistics.

Occupational exposure to PM 2.5 of many different particle types by sub-groups back in the '40s through '60s were massive as diesel mechanics work on busses in closed buildings, but we didn't see massive mortalities or massive class-action suits.

I have had problems with the EPA PM2.5 analysis from the start. I can't understand how a diesel smoke or forest fire smoke particles of pyrolyzed hydrocarbons will give the same health effect as a sea salt particle the same size. There are no particle identifications in their standards and salt mist in the lungs is not the same as silica or pyrolyzed organic materials or ozone/organic reacted materials.

I am sure you could see the scientific reports supporting the regulation, rather than engaging in speculation. Go to the CFR and do a search of submissions on the EPA site.

The World Health Organization attributes 3.6 million deaths a year to pollution from indoor cooking using solid fuels and kerosene. That's because a couple of billion worldwide don't have access to enough electricity for cooking.

But why should I believe them? The employees of the WHO presumably have career incentives to say this sort of thing, true or not.

Dearie, You should do some reading on propaganda and disinformation. Two forms of attack you are using in your reply: First, with the why should I believe them claim, you are getting into the space of saying: who can believe anyone these days, so don't believe what that person is saying. It is called disorientation. Second, you are saying that an organization controlled by countries are run by employees who have an incentive to say something, whether true or not. That's another disorientation strategy, as well as doing the ad hominem. I know you do not intend to do this, but you are picking up some sloppy habits when you normally make good comments.

In Germany there's more and more restriction on what cars can drive within cities. Often forcing out older cars.
So such regulations are very costly to the households who are forced to buy new ones, because of that.
Or leaving people with cars, they can't drive anywhere really.
Does the proposed health benefit of those kinds of intervention offset the financial impact on the affected families?
What's the average life expectancy gain?
Having less money also diminishes life expectancy.
It hits those with fewer financial means harder than those with a lot. So implementing this is highly regressive.
I am highly suspcious of such anti-pollution policy, because it comes from the same broad political direction, that made Germany get out of nuclear power (which I believe is to everyone's detriment).
In the GDR air-pollution was an obvious killer. But these days, I think all the high-hanging fruit has been picked long ago, at least in Germany.

I've never heard a convincing economic argument for this. How much of a cost will be forced on the population for how much and what kind of gain, is what I'd like to know always.

The EPA has a "Near Road" air pollution monitoring initiative.

Good thing Alex didn't live in the Soviet Union. His underwear would really be in a twist.

Alex, we have known for years about the linkage between air pollution and illness. Probably best studied with lung disease, especially asthma, but we have known about the effects on low birth weights for a long time also. Your readers dont follow the topic so this is surprising to them. We also have follow up studies showing that when levels of pollutions go down, health improves.


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