A View From the Cheap Seats

April 21, 2008

A Special Message on Earth Day

Filed under: Environment — trzupek @ 8:15 pm

By Rich Trzupek

Earth Day has turned into National Guilt Day for too many of us. Having worked in the air quality field since 1982, I often wonder why we don’t spend a little time celebrating the progress that we’ve made as well. Thanks to the combined efforts of industry, regulators, environmental groups and, most especially, the average citizen, the reductions in air pollution that we have realized over the past thirty years have been nothing short of remarkable.

When the original Clean Air Act was passed in the 70’s, one of our biggest goals was to reduce emissions of the big six “criteria pollutants”: carbon monoxide, lead, nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds, particulate matter and sulfur dioxide. (Particulate matter has since been subdivided into two categories, PM-10 and PM 2.5) How have we done? Consider the following table, taken from USEPA emission inventory data .

Per Cent Change In Emissions

1980 vs

1990 vs

Carbon Monoxide






Nitrogen Oxides



Volatile Organic Compounds



Direct PM10 (Particulate Matter)



Direct PM2.5 (Fine Particulate Matter)


Sulfur Dioxide



You’ll find similar progress has been made in the realm of “toxic” air pollutants as well, especially over the last ten years. That’s all pretty good stuff, especially considering that energy use, population and vehicle miles traveled have all increased substantially during these time periods. And everyone has been a part of that progress. Beleagured, oft-maligned American consumers pay for expensive pollution control equipment on every car they purchase, they’ve modified their use of consumer products from aerosols to paint, and knowingly or not, they pay a “tax” for power to pay for increasingly more sophisticated control equipment on power plants.

The ordinary Joe and Josephine working in the factory has been a part of it too. The violators get most of the press, creating the impression that big, bad industrial America thumbs its nose at the environment. That has not been my experience. 99% of the people I have worked with over the years and just like you and me. They’re our neighbors and they give a damn about the world they will leave to their children. So, they willingly go the extra yard to implement new programs, change habits in the work place, and fill out forests worth of paperwork, all to comply with an ever more complex and stringent set of environmental regulations.

It is because of everyone’s efforts that we are able to continually reduce air quality standards. What were impossible targets just 30 years ago are attained and EPA sets new, even cleaner goals. Now certain news organizations don’t get that, reporting (for example) that the number of counties in the US that don’t meet smog standards rose from about 80 to over 300 this year. Buried in the fine print is this simple fact: the air didn’t get dirtier – in fact it got cleaner. What changed was the standard itself. We set a new, even cleaner goal. I don’t have any argument with that. Hell, new standards keep me gainfully employed. But we should not lose sight of the fact that we have made enormous progress, thanks to everyone’s hard work And, I have no doubt that the progress will continue.

So Happy Earth Day America. Feel guilty if you must, but don’t forget to take a moment to pat yourself on the back too. You’ve earned it.



  1. Happy Earth Day 🙂

    Comment by jhOy imPeRiaL — April 21, 2008 @ 11:13 pm | Reply

  2. From Today’s Wall Street Journal:

    In 1971 an environmental and antiwar ethic was taking root in Canada, and I chose to participate. As I completed a Ph.D. in ecology, I combined my science background with the strong media skills of my colleagues. In keeping with our pacifist views, we started Greenpeace.

    But I later learned that the environmental movement is not always guided by science. As we celebrate Earth Day today, this is a good lesson to keep in mind.

    At first, many of the causes we championed, such as opposition to nuclear testing and protection of whales, stemmed from our scientific knowledge of nuclear physics and marine biology. But after six years as one of five directors of Greenpeace International, I observed that none of my fellow directors had any formal science education. They were either political activists or environmental entrepreneurs. Ultimately, a trend toward abandoning scientific objectivity in favor of political agendas forced me to leave Greenpeace in 1986.

    The breaking point was a Greenpeace decision to support a world-wide ban on chlorine. Science shows that adding chlorine to drinking water was the biggest advance in the history of public health, virtually eradicating water-borne diseases such as cholera. And the majority of our pharmaceuticals are based on chlorine chemistry. Simply put, chlorine is essential for our health.

    My former colleagues ignored science and supported the ban, forcing my departure. Despite science concluding no known health risks – and ample benefits – from chlorine in drinking water, Greenpeace and other environmental groups have opposed its use for more than 20 years.

    Opposition to the use of chemicals such as chlorine is part of a broader hostility to the use of industrial chemicals. Rachel Carson’s 1962 book, “Silent Spring,” had a significant impact on many pioneers of the green movement. The book raised concerns, many rooted in science, about the risks and negative environmental impact associated with the overuse of chemicals. But the initial healthy skepticism hardened into a mindset that treats virtually all industrial use of chemicals with suspicion.

    Sadly, Greenpeace has evolved into an organization of extremism and politically motivated agendas. Its antichlorination campaign failed, only to be followed by a campaign against polyvinyl chloride.

    Greenpeace now has a new target called phthalates (pronounced thal-ates). These are chemical compounds that make plastics flexible. They are found in everything from hospital equipment such as IV bags and tubes, to children’s toys and shower curtains. They are among the most practical chemical compounds in existence.

    Phthalates are the new bogeyman. These chemicals make easy targets since they are hard to understand and difficult to pronounce. Commonly used phthalates, such as diisononyl phthalate (DINP), have been used in everyday products for decades with no evidence of human harm. DINP is the primary plasticizer used in toys. It has been tested by multiple government and independent evaluators, and found to be safe.

    Despite this, a political campaign that rejects science is pressuring companies and the public to reject the use of DINP. Retailers such as Wal-Mart and Toys “R” Us are switching to phthalate-free products to avoid public pressure.

    It may be tempting to take this path of least resistance, but at what cost? None of the potential replacement chemicals have been tested and found safe to the degree that DINP has. The Consumer Product Safety Commission recently cautioned, “If DINP is to be replaced in children’s products . . . the potential risks of substitutes must be considered. Weaker or more brittle plastics might break and result in a choking hazard. Other plasticizers might not be as well studied as DINP.”

    The hysteria over DINP began in Europe and Israel, both of which instituted bans. Yet earlier this year, Israel realized the error of putting politics before science, and reinstated DINP.

    The European Union banned the use of phthalates in toys prior to completion of a comprehensive risk assessment on DINP. That assessment ultimately concluded that the use of DINP in infant toys poses no measurable risk.

    The antiphthalate activists are running a campaign of fear to implement their political agenda. They have seen success in California, with a state ban on the use of phthalates in infant products, and are pushing for a national ban. This fear campaign merely distracts the public from real environmental threats.

    We all have a responsibility to be environmental stewards. But that stewardship requires that science, not political agendas, drive our public policy.

    Mr. Moore, co-founder and former leader of Greenpeace, is chairman and chief scientist of Greenspirit Strategies.

    See all of today’s editorials and op-eds, plus video commentary, on Opinion Journal.


    Comment by Wild Bill — April 22, 2008 @ 2:52 pm | Reply

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