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Air Quality

Big Oil’s Lies About Pollution Health Risks Contributed To Millions Of Deaths

For decades, major oil companies have known about the health risks from fine particulates but worked diligently to keep that knowledge secret.

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Images of emaciated polar bears and warnings about the dangers of a warming planet are all well and good but they don’t really motivate most of us to do anything. We can tut-tut to each other over lunch at the club, but we still have to get up every day and find a way to pay for shelter, food, and clothing. For decades, that disconnect between theory and reality has made it possible to kick the can down the road on climate change while we get on with our lives.

But things get more personal when researchers report the crud that spills into the atmosphere when fossil fuels are burned is killing millions of people a year all around the world. Or that chemicals called PFAS that are used in many manufactured products are finding their way into the womb and shrinking the size of our testicles. Those are the sorts of things people can relate to. So it is interesting to learn how hard industry works to keep such information away from the eyes and ears of customers.

Thanks to a report by The Guardian last week, we now know the major oil companies knew all about fine particulate matter and the health risks associated with it for decades, but instead of doing anything about the problem, they poured money into disinformation campaigns orchestrated by the likes of Charles Koch’s Heartland Institute and the American Petroleum Institute. For a timeline of the actions taken by the oil industry to cover up their knowledge of air pollution and health risks, please see The Guardian’s source article.

“The fossil-fuel industry was sowing uncertainty to maintain business as usual, and in all likelihood they were collaborating with other groups, such as the tobacco industry,” said Carroll Muffett, head of the Center for International Environmental Law. “When you look at these historical documents in context it becomes clear that the oil and gas industry has a playbook they’ve used again and again for an array of pollutants. They used it around climate change but absolutely we are seeing it around PM2.5 as well. It’s the same pattern.”

Francesca Dominici, a professor of biostatistics at Harvard, added, “There is now very consistent and solid evidence across many countries of the link between fine particulate matter and harm to health. There is also a ton of evidence that lots of people are dying in the US from exposures even below the current limits. This pollution is very harmful and stricter regulation is needed.”

What the US got under the prior administration, however, was looser regulations. Time and time again, the EPA under Andrew Wheeler rolled back exhaust emission standards, air pollution standards from power plants, clean water rules, and many other regulations designed to protect Americans from harm caused by industrial activity. Following a 2017 White House meeting involving senior executives from Exxon, Chevron, Occidental Petroleum, and API, the industry won a major victory when it convinced the administration to promulgate a new rule prohibiting the use of data derived from studies where the identity of the participants was kept private.

Such privacy is critical to getting people to participate in such studies in the first place. Would you agree to be in a study if you knew some yahoo from Exxon was going to nose around in your private life to see if you ever donated to a Democratic candidate, had a criminal record, or failed to pay a parking ticket? Such studies are central to basic health research, but suddenly were no longer acceptable for making federal policy decisions.

One of the first such studies to look at air pollution and health risk was the so-called Harvard “six cities” study conducted in the early 90s. Almost everything we know about air pollution and health risks flows from the results of that research. By attacking the methodology used for such studies, the industry can magically make their conclusions disappear.

The Takeaway

Maybe it was always this way, but over the past several decades, it seems the American government has been for sale to the highest bidder. It’s a perversion of the Golden Rule — those that have the gold make the rules. The modern trend can be traced directly to the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United, which effectively made corruption a constitutionally protected form of free speech. Today, lobbyists and other corporate actors write our laws for us, craft our regulations, and dictate policy to government leaders. The only thing our elected officials do is devote the majority of their time to raising money for their next election campaign.

The system we have today makes it entirely too easy to deny, delay, deflect, and dismiss any information that may have a negative impact on business — even if that information shows that what the corporate community is doing in pursuit of profits is killing the citizens of the country. Any hopes for a better future are dependent on a paradigm shift that puts science instead of greed when it comes to governing. That is not a happy prospect.

Millions have died from the byproducts of burning fossil fuels. Apparently, energy companies won’t be satisfied until every drop of oil, every ton or coal, and every cubic meter of natural gas has been found, extracted, and burned. If that means millions more people will die as a result, well, you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs. A corporation exists for one reason and one reason only — to maximize shareholder value — according to the perversion of economic theory that holds sway today.

Death and disease are unfortunate, of course, but what can you do? Crash the economy just to keep some people from dying? What are you, one of those dangerous progressives? Better to bury our heads in the sand and just keep on keeping on. And hope that those fine particulates don’t find their way into our lungs, livers, and hearts. “Short sighted” is the perfect term for such thinking.

Featured photo by Call Me Fred on Unsplash

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Written By

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."


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