Presidents don’t really kill people, but policies always include risks

By : 
Reflections from my Notebook

A reader recently criticized a column that ran in this newspaper because it blamed President Trump for killing people due to his unwavering support for coal. The reader said he had enough of the Trump blaming, which includes him being responsible for the increased number of hurricanes (due to climate change denial) and the thousands of people killed during hurricanes, specifically in Puerto Rico.

Although the columnist made a forceful attack on the administration that at times may have been unfair, or at least extreme, there was fact behind his argument. The basis for his argument came from the Trump administration’s own analysis of its Affordable Clean Energy rule that is set to replace the Clean Power Plan of the Obama administration.

The fine print in the analysis by the administration noted that the plan will bring an increase of up to 1,400 premature deaths annually by 2030 “because of increased rates of microscopic airborne particles known as PM 2.5, which are dangerous because of their link to heart and lung diseases as well as their ability to trigger chronic problems like asthma and bronchitis.”

To many people, that is an acceptable risk in order to make coal power cheaper by removing regulations for the coal industry. They may argue that regulations harm many people, perhaps even leading to death if excessive costs cause families to cut back on basic necessities when their budget gets stretched.

The political debate of regulations vs. protection will rage on, but the more interesting point is the level of risk people are willing to accept. Regulations can’t remove all risks because life is messy and there are unforeseen consequences around every corner.

Individuals accept risk all the time. Although many people have quit smoking or never started due to the research that shows the link to premature death, there are still a substantial number of smokers who feel the satisfaction outweighs the risk.

A vast majority of people drives even though statistics show there is significant risk of death when taking to the road. There are often reports of fatal accidents in the area, yet most of us drive defensively and hope for the best. The acceptance of that risk outweighs the handicap of losing mobility.  

A simple flu shot can lessen the likelihood of the misery of flu and, in some cases, even death. Yet, less than half the adults in the United States bother with a shot. Although the number climbs to about 64 percent for adults 65 and older, a more vulnerable population to the effects of influenza, that still means 36 percent of those vulnerable adults don’t take time to help protect themselves.

One difference from coal regulations is that smoking, driving, getting a flu shot and taking other protective measures are all individual choices. If our air is polluted, individuals don’t have a choice about what air to breathe when they are outdoors.

A recent report by the World Health Organization shows nine out of 10 people on the planet breath polluted air, which is one of the greatest environmental risks to human health.

The biggest culprit is something called fine particulate matter, which is 30 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair. They can lodge in the lungs and get into the bloodstream, which increases the risks for respiratory disease. Air pollution is to blame for 34 percent of all strokes, 27 percent of all heart disease deaths and 37 percent of all lung cancer deaths.

“Air pollution is of particular concern because it often carries long distances and has a greater effect on susceptible groups, including young children, the elderly, and those with existing respiratory disease, such as asthma or COPD,” said University of Minnesota School of Public Health air pollution expert Jesse Berman.

Breathing outside polluted air killed about 4.2 million people in 2016. That puts into perspective the potential 1,400 additional deaths from a change in coal regulations.

Yes, the rollback will likely cause more people to die, but the impact is minimal when compared to the overall effects of air pollution.

Still, there are people who won’t accept any risk and they are going to attack President Trump for every rollback of regulations, which exist to offer protection to people.

On the other hand, there are people who won’t accept any increased costs mandated by the government and they attacked former President Obama for his increased regulations, which led to more expenses for businesses.

Most people are in the middle. They realize there are tradeoffs — that we can’t live in a bubble that seals us off from all risks, but we also don’t want to live in a cesspool full of harmful contaminants.

People on the extremes are going to continue making their cases every time the needle moves toward or away from regulation. The repercussions for moving the needle won’t happen until the people in the middle decide they either won’t tolerate the risk of rollbacks or won’t accept the increased cost of more stringent standards.

The scientific finding of a potential maximum of 1,400 premature deaths per year has been accepted by the administration. The question is if the majority of residents in the United States feel that is an acceptable risk for potentially cheaper energy and more jobs in the coal industry.