Given that pollution surges due to fires are well-documented here, it would seem obvious that if pollution was going to cause more deaths, it would be during wildfire season.
Yet that does not happen. Even using the somewhat ridiculous small micron particulate matter (PM2.5) only detectable with an electron microscope, as pollution, deaths have not gone up from pollution during wildfires. Not right away, not months later, not years later. Not in the entire history of the US Environmental Protection Agency.
Yet economists have claimed that there were 9,700 more deaths between 2018 and 2016 due to, you guessed it, President Donald Trump. Look, I get it economists. I avoid watching the news because I don't like the way President Trump speaks. I miss POTUS (and TOTUS(1)) Obama and his flair for delivery too. I wish the President would get off Twitter. But claiming that short-term policies by this President caused pollution deaths is in defiance of chemistry, toxicology, and biology. It is, in short, why economics is ridiculed by science, and only Vox will cite them seriously.
Yet the economists engage in nonsense anyway, noting that "linked" deaths declined while President Obama was in office (by over 24 percent!) but then shot up when President Trump was inaugurated. The problem with their statistics is they are "virtual" deaths, so they are giving President Obama credit for lives "saved or gained" the same supernatural way economists did about jobs when his stimulus spending package which went primarily toward government employees and unions caused no hiring to occur. Unemployment instead went up, but economists leapt to his defense claiming it would have gone down a lot more, so he saved virtual jobs and billions and billions of dollars.
Then also use virtual money voodoo here, to claim these 9,700 "early deaths" cost us $89 billion. Like most economics, this is pretend correlation, but even worse this is pretend data in use so they can't even predict the past accurately. Because they did it by mapping deaths to counties that were not under National Ambient Air Quality Standards and claiming the difference is due to PM2.5 caused by the Trump administration.
Not car accidents, suicides, opioids, or an aging population, nor any of dozens of confounders that trip up breezy correlation claims, it had to be air pollution that can't even be sensed without a $1,000,000 piece of equipment.
That's media clickbait, and it works
The image Vox uses at the top of its article is a woman wearing a facemask during a wildfire in 2017. That has nothing to do with actual pollution, San Francisco has a much greater health problem with hobos leaving needles and feces everywhere than it does pollution, it was instead an isolated event where actual smoke, PM10, from a fire was moving south. If you were asthmatic, you had reason to worry, otherwise you had no reason for concern - unless you felt like the smell of bacon was also causing death.
Yet instead of real pollution, PM10 the article and the economist claims are about PM2.5. That mask will not do a thing to keep PM2.5 out, it was just the beneficiary of a media-generated subsidy - an intellectual placebo. Since you need an electron microscope to even detect PM2.5 that $9 mask helped no one. Yet for some reason images of cheap masks keep being trotted out by journalists who are confused about particulate matter and air quality, the same way they might be baffled that while all cows are animals, all animals are not cows. So, yes, PM10, actual pollution, must contain PM2.5, because PM2.5 is 25 percent of the size of actual smog particles. It could even be 4X as common as PM10. But using that specious fact to make giant red maps is just scaring people for no reason; our lungs are not impacted by PM2.5. It has nothing to do with human health, it is air quality homeopathy.
Our air quality is actually fantastic, even if you use PM2.5 "virtual" pollution.
If you use actual pollution, PM10, almost all of the yellow disappears but using PM2.5 falsely creates red maps that cloud the reality that our air quality is great. Some people feed themselves on pollution claims, and good air quality is bad for business. If we go even smaller and use PM1, as some pollution activists have recently tried to advocate, we'd have 10X as much red on maps.
Instead of being green, as most of America is because our air quality is quite good, all of it that is not unused land would be red. Weather people in California love to be able to show red air maps, since otherwise most of the job here is saying it will be partly sunny and warm, and then tonight a breeze will come off the delta and cool things down.
Using PM2.5 a map can look like this during a wildfire, even though not a single death was caused by it. Yet how many economists took deaths that happened during the fire and attributed them all to PM2.5 rather than actual smoke inhalation or heart attacks?
Scary? Only if you believe in virtual pollution rather than the real thing.
The Vox article goes on to make its own claim that PM2.5 has killed millions and even quotes Science-Is-A-Corporate-Conspiracy fanzine Undark, created by an aging progressive to advance her politics and who sees in the Trump administration a chance to return to the Glory Days of 2004, when Democrats had convinced themselves they were the Party of Science.(2)
What the article does not cite is actual science. Instead of speaking with scientists, Vox does what weak journalism does; find sources that sound legitimate but claim exactly what they want them to claim. Like this: "Just in 2019 alone, studies have come out associating particulate pollution with violent crime, lower GDP, childhood stunting in India, and increased mortality."
Epidemiological statistics are not proof any more than mouse studies or cell cultures are
"Associating" PM2.5 with crime and lower GDP?? There is a reason why in my meetings with National Institutes of Health they have agreed that epidemiology correlation papers, where words like "associated", "suggests", and "linked" have ruined trust in science for most Americans, should have EXPLORATORY watermarked on every page. They know the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) is a rogue agency dumping on the science community every chance it gets. When Linda Birnbaum, an Obama appointee, got control, it was open season on scientists, even at other agencies.(3)
What statistical claims about PM2.5 all have in common is there is not a single analysis of any deaths, they are all just statistical matching of one effect to suggest a cause. California logs every death and during the worst California fires in recent memory, 2008, though PM2.5 skyrocketed, deaths went down.
Statisticians aligned against Republicans have a ready answer for all of the science objections - maybe those deaths did not happen yet, maybe they won't happen for another 20 years, maybe mortality is lower, but that debunks the claim that deaths happened short term due to Trump.
Vox is a fine political magazine, but reading them for science is sometimes as ridiculous as reading claims like that cell phones cause cancer in Scientific American. Reciting economist claims as science is silly, and spending 5 minutes in Google search to find other articles to support the agenda is irresponsible.
(1) He rarely went anywhere without TOTUS - Teleprompter of the United States - and wasn't good when he did.
(2) Before it was known that science denial of energy, medicine, and food (not to mention greater belief in psychics, ghosts, and alients) are all heavily weighted toward them.
(3) Her group began open war on scientists and she has retired but has put forth her trusted lieutenant in hopes that the Trump administration won't notice and will let their agenda continue unimpeded. And that agenda has nothing to do with public health.
Anti-science activists, especially in states that hate science, love NIEHS. The founder of this group claims she and her child were poisoned by pesticides in California and then again in Maryland. The organization has no scientists on staff, which may be why they think chemicals act like horror movie ghosts and follow you across the country.
- Exposure To Wildfire Smoke May Increase Preterm Birth Risk- But It Would Be The PM10, Not PM2.5
- Claim: 30,000 Lives Could Be Saved By Making The World's Cleanest Air Even Cleaner- But The Data Don't Show It
- 91% Of The World Don't Live In Polluted Air, And It Has Not Made COVID-19 Worse
- Did You Get Fat From The Air You Breathe Or The Pizza You Inhale?
- California Fires: Where There's Smoke There's PM 2.5 Junk Science