Lung Association Poll: Another Attempt to Influence Public Opinion in the Guise of Reporting It

by Marlo Lewis on December 3, 2012

in Blog, Features

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The American Lung Association (ALA) is hawking the results of an opinion poll that supposedly shows “American voters support the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) setting stronger fine particle (soot) standards to protect public health.” ALA spokesperson Peter Iwanowicz says the poll “affirms that the public is sick of soot and wants EPA to set more protective standards.” Missy Egelsky of pollster Greenberg Quinlan Rosner says the survey “clearly indicates that Americans strongly back the EPA taking action now to limit the amount of soot released by oil refineries, power plants and other industrial facilities” (Greenwire, Nov. 29, 2012). This is all spin.

Most Americans probably have opinions about President Obama’s overall record and many have opinions about the Stimulus, Obamacare, the Keystone XL Pipeline, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the auto industry bailout, and whether Congress should cut spending and/or raise taxes. But how many even know the EPA is revising the national ambient air quality standard (NAAQS) for fine particles (PM2.5)?

So the first thing I notice in the Greenberg Quinlan Rosner poll is the absence of an appropriate first question: Please name or describe any major air quality rules the U.S. EPA is expected to complete in the near future? Starting with that question would likely show most people are unaware of the pending NAAQS revision. From which it follows they don’t have an opinion about it (though of course anyone can have an off-the-cuff reaction to anything).

The survey asks a bunch of demographic questions about respondents’ party affiliation, age, gender, and the like, but only two substantive questions. The first is as follows:

As you may know, the EPA is proposing to update air pollution standards by placing stricter limits on the amount of fine particles, also called “soot,” that power plants, oil refineries and other industrial facilities can release. Do you favor or oppose the EPA setting stricter limits on fine particles, also called “soot?”

Of total respondents, 63% were in favor, 30% were opposed. So according to the ALA, the public supports tougher standards by 2 to 1. But since most respondents have probably never heard or thought about the issue until that moment, the results simply confirm what everybody already knows: Most people think air pollution is a bad thing and would prefer to have less of it.

Since what the question elicits from most respondents is their general attitude about air pollution, it is remarkable that 30% answered in the negative. Note too that most of what the public hears about air pollution comes from organizations like the EPA and the ALA, which relentlessly exaggerate  air pollution levels and the associated health risks.

The second substantive question in the poll asks respondents to state their opinion after hearing two statements “some people on both sides of the issue might make”:

(Some/other) people say: Studies indicate that soot is one of the most dangerous and deadly forms of pollution, especially for children, and can cause heart and lung damage and even lead to cancer or premature death. Independent scientists say that setting stronger soot standards will prevent tens of thousands of premature deaths and over 1 million asthma attacks every year, saving American families billions in lower health care costs. The EPA is taking a common sense approach, setting standards that will be easy for polluters to comply with at a minimal cost.

(Some/other) people say: Given the weak economy, now is the worst time for the EPA to enact costly regulations that kill jobs and increase energy costs. These new rules are unrealistic and unattainable. They will lead to higher energy costs for American families, would cost businesses tens of millions of dollars, and would essentially close areas of the country to new or expanded manufacturing businesses, resulting in American jobs being shipped overseas. President Obama shouldn’t be creating new barriers to job creation or increasing energy costs when our country is trying to recover from a recession.

Now that you’ve heard more about this issue let me ask you again, do you favor or oppose the EPA setting stricter limits on fine particles, also called “soot?”

Permit me to translate: Studies indicate that “soot” kills tens of thousands of people and harms children the most. Others say that preventing widespread death, heart attacks, cancer, and asthma will cost a lot of money. Which do you think is more important, saving lives or saving money?

Note also the first statement claims the revised NAAQS “will be easy for polluters to comply with at a minimal cost,” thereby rebutting the central thesis of the second statement in advance. In contrast, the second statement does not dispute the first statement’s main thesis that “soot is one of the most deadly forms of pollution.” The poll thus give the impression that even the EPA’s critics accept the agency’s interpretation of the relevant science.

Given this loaded and asymmetric framing of the issue, the remarkable thing is that after hearing the pro and con statements, the percentage of respondents favoring the EPA’s proposal actually decreased, falling from 63% to 56%.

One can only wonder what the breakdown would have been had the con statement gone something like this:

(Some/other) people say: The EPA cherry picked among an extensive literature to support its health assessment, ignoring studies that find no correlation between lower soot levels and improved health. The health benefits of the EPA’s proposal are biologically implausible, because fine particles from coal power plants are mostly ammonium sulfate and ammonium nitrate, and neither is harmful to humans at levels even 10 times higher than the air Americans breathe. This economy-chilling rule will likely do more harm than good to public health, because poverty and unemployment increase the risk of illness and death.

A quibble perhaps, but Ms. Egelsky of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner claims “Americans strongly back” the EPA’s proposal. She should read her own poll! Only 39% of respondents said they “strongly favor” the EPA setting a more stringent soot standard in response to the first substantive question, and only 33% said they “strongly favor” the EPA doing so after hearing the pro and con statements.

What we have here is another attempt to influence public opinion in the guise of reporting it. More voters are likely to support the ALA agenda if they believe (however mistakenly) that most of their neighbors “strongly back” it too.

The ALA’s press release on the poll urges the public to send President Obama an email asking that he direct the EPA to set a more stringent standard “to protect the public from this dangerous pollutant.” By law, however, it is the EPA administrator’s “judgment” alone that is to determine the stringency of the standard. Legally, the President has no say in the determination. So the ALA email campaign is a call for political interference in an allegedly scientific process.

In reality, of course, political calculation and ideological agenda permeate EPA rulemakings. Nonetheless, at this late date, President Obama likely plays no part in shaping the EPA’s final rule, which is due to be released Dec. 14. Clearly, the point of the email campaign — and the poll — is to provide talking points Obama can use later this month to defend regulatory decisions his administration has already made. The ALA’s email campaign exploits the naivety of simple folk by pretending they can influence the EPA’s decision. But hey, if you’re going to hype air pollution risks and rig opinion polls to favor your agenda, then why not also mislead people about how the sausage is made?

The ALA presents itself as an honest broker of public health information. In reality, the ALA’s advocacy on behalf of the EPA is tainted by a massive conflict of interest. In the words of Junk Science blogger Steve Milloy, “the American Lung Association is bought-and-paid-for by the EPA.” In the past 10 years, the ALA received $24,750,250 from the EPA, according to the agency’s records. The EPA uses our tax dollars to fund groups like the ALA who then demand that the EPA wield more power and get more of our tax dollars.

Maybe one of these days the media will pay attention to such facts when covering polls sponsored by green advocacy groups.

It’s also high time journalists started wondering why NAAQS revisions seldom (or never) lead to decreased stringency. At the EPA, new science always seems to find that air pollution is harmful at lower concentrations than the agency previously believed. That’s an odd result if each review is genuinely free of bias — kind of like flipping a balanced coin 10 times and always getting “heads.”

There is a pervasive problem with the entire Administrative State, yet I’ve never seen a journalist address it: Agencies are judges in their own cause. The EPA, for example, both develops, adopts, and enforces emission controls and standards and conducts the analyses authorizing or mandating such regulation. That obvious (though seldom acknowledged) conflict of interest inevitably biases agency analyses in favor of ever-increasing regulatory stringency.


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