As unprecedented, climate change-fueled wildfires in Canada are resulting in record-breaking pollution in cities and towns across the U.S., marking not only a climate event but also a major public health event, a coal-funded lawyer went on Fox News on Wednesday night to spread a particularly dangerous lie: that breathing wildfire smoke doesn’t have any negative health effects.
Appearing on “The Ingraham Angle,” Steve Milloy, senior policy fellow of the Koch- and coal-funded Energy and Environment Legal Institute, said contrary to nearly all evidence that there’s “no health risk” to breathing wildfire smoke. His remarks were chock full of lies, as he laid forth an utterly baseless conspiracy theory that the Environmental Policy Agency (EPA) straight out invented the harms of particulate matter, or PM2.5, which is a particularly insidious form of air pollution caused by wildfires.
“The reality is there’s just no health risk. There’s EPA research, they’ve done lots of clinical research on asthmatics, on elderly asthmatics, on children, on elderly with heart disease — not a cough or a wheeze from any of them,” Milloy lied. The clip was first posted online by Media Matters for America senior fellow Matthew Gertz.
“We have this kind of air in India and China all the time, no public health emergency,” he continued. “This is like clean air in China.” A study by highly respected journal The Lancet last year found that two-thirds of all air pollution-related premature deaths in 2019 happened in India and China, with 2.36 million and 2.1 million premature deaths, respectively. At one point on Wednesday, New York City had the worst air quality in the world — far from being considered clean air anywhere.
“This doesn’t kill anybody, this doesn’t make anybody cough, this is not a health event, this has got nothing to do with climate,” he went on to claim. “This is wildfire smoke, this is natural, this is not because of climate change, this is not because of fossil fuel – internal combustion engines.”
Every part of this is untrue. Tens of thousands of deaths are attributable each year to acute exposure to wildfire pollution specifically. Many people have reported not only coughing, but also stinging eyes and lungs due to the smoke; others have gone to the hospital for exacerbated asthma symptoms. Doctors are warning of the health effects of inhaling the smoke. Climate experts say that not only are the wildfires attributable to the climate crisis, but they’re also part of the new reality of a changed, fossil fuel-polluted world — and that the air pollution from the smoke is the worst in recent recorded history.
In reality, PM2.5, a common pollutant from wildfires, is an extremely dangerous form of pollution so fine that it can absorb into people’s lungs and bloodstreams. Inhaling it has been found to be a precursor to asthma, lung cancer and other forms of cancer, cardiovascular disease, and a variety of other negative health effects.
Correcting Milloy’s outlandish claims could fill a book. And, as it happens, it has.
As Drilled News’s Amy Westervelt points out, Milloy has a decades-long history of laundering lies about lung cancer and health, starting with his career in the tobacco industry — the industry that first imagined the type of climate denial that Milloy still spins. His influence is all over the fossil fuel-backed climate denial movement, earning him a spot in Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway’s 2010 book Merchants of Doubt, about the transition between the tobacco industry’s denial of the effects of cigarettes on health to modern climate denial and delayism.
The reason that Milloy is spreading such dangerous lies is to spread fossil fuel propaganda. If the health effects of pollution and the climate crisis aren’t real, so the lie goes, then there is no reason to regulate it and risk jeopardizing the profits of the fossil fuel industry. Milloy’s employer is funded by coal, and the burning and mining of coal and other fossil fuels will cause worse and worse wildfires for decades to come, if left unmitigated — though neither Milloy nor Fox want viewers to know that.
His refrain is familiar; during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Milloy and dozens of other conservative pundits spread denial and lies about the virus, paving a path for conservative members of the public to believe that the government is spreading conspiracy theories about protecting their health.
COVID denial and climate denial are explicitly tied. Milloy himself has said so. “#Coronavirus has given us the #GreenDream: — Deprivation — Destroyed economy — Police state,” Milloy once tweeted. This, of course, is just further lies — but, as the pandemic laid bare, any sacrifice of human life appears to be worth it to Republicans if it means they and their corporate cronies gain more power and profit — as, perhaps, the young miners dying of black lung in order to mine coal to fund Milloy’s salary may know.
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