Scaremongering From the Sundance Kid

Actor Robert Redford deserves an Oscar for his performance as a someone "yearning for a straight story" about President Bush's energy plan.

The plan calls for producing more energy through increased oil and gas production, more power plants and a revival of nuclear power. But eco-extremists such as Redford, a board member of the activist Natural Resources Defense Council, oppose more energy production. They want energy conservation instead.

Relying on eco-activist folklore, Redford opined in the New York Times this week that "Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, the Exxon Valdez accident and innumerable studies [prove] pollution's ill effect on public health ... [and] demonstrate that the stakes could hardly be higher ... nary a nod [is given] to inherent risks associated with nuclear waste, nuclear weapons material or power plant accidents ... at the heart of the Bush energy plan are proposals to weaken long-standing environmental safeguards."

Redford must be counting on his good looks and Hollywood fame to support this alarmism. The facts don't.

More energy may mean more pollution, but it may not. Technology can reduce pollution from fossil fuel combustion. Even if incrementally more pollution is produced, it's not clear that the public health will be harmed.

Between 1949 to 1999 coal production increased from 480 million short tons to 1,099 short tons; oil consumption increased from 9.76 million barrels of oil per day to 19.39 million barrels of oil per day; natural gas production increased from 4.97 trillion cubic feet to 21.43 trillion cubic feet; and electricity consumption increased from 255 billion kilowatt hours to 3,265 billion kilowatt hours.

What happened to U.S. public health during this increase in energy use and pollution? Life expectancy the most objective measure of public health increased from 68.2 years in 1950 to 76.7 years in 1999.

There's a reason that more pollution hasn't adversely affected public health.

Typical pollution levels in the U.S. whether in the air, water or from toxic waste sites are not, and never have been a public health problem. Few people realize this important fact after two generations of misinformation to the contrary.

The only known deaths in the U.S. from air pollution occurred in 1948 in Donora, Penn. Thousands of temporary illnesses and 17 deaths were caused by an unusual fog and a temperature inversion that trapped sulfur dioxide fumes in the steel mill town. The Donora tragedy, 22 years before the Clean Air Act, is unique in U.S. history.

Much has been made of respiratory problems supposedly caused by outdoor air pollution. Smoggy days in urban areas may cause transient effects among some elderly, asthmatic and otherwise susceptible individuals engaging in outdoor activities and exercise. But for the vast majority of people, smog is more unpleasant than it is a health threat. There is no credible scientific evidence that ground-level ozone causes long-term health effects.

The Environmental Protection Agency claimed air pollution caused asthma rates to increase over the last 20 years, particularly among low income, minority children. The claim was absurd on its face considering that during the same period air pollution greatly decreased.

Ironically, it is possible that the asthma increase if it even really occurred was caused by our most recent effort to conserve energy. The 1970s-era energy crisis resulted in the construction of energy efficient, but airtight public housing filled with cockroach allergen, a known asthma trigger.

Redford's dire references to Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and the Exxon Valdez incidents are inappropriate.

The 1978 incident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant involved the release of a small amount of radiation. But no one was harmed. In trashing a lawsuit alleging harm from the incident, a federal judge wrote in June 1996, "The paucity of proof alleged in support of the Plaintiffs' case is manifest. The court searched for any and all evidence which construed in a light most favorable to Plaintiffs' case creates a genuine issue of material fact warranting submission of the claims to a jury. This effort has been in vain."

After the 1986 accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, a nuclear power critic estimated that 1 million cancer cases, half of them fatal, would occur. A less hysterical estimate was 5,000 to 10,000 Chernobyl-linked cancer deaths. Reality has been quite different.

The United Nations recently reported that about 1,800 children developed treatable thyroid cancer and that "with this exception, there is no scientific evidence of increases in overall cancer incidence or mortality or in nonmalignant disorders that could be related to radiation exposure." The Chernobyl plant's crude design would never be approved in the U.S. anyway.

The 1989 Exxon Valdez accident was certainly a tragedy for wildlife in Prince William Sound  but not to human health. As with other oil spills, some cleanup workers were injured and reports have appeared of increased anxiety disorder among local communities. But these are hardly "public health" problems.

As to Redford's claim of "innumerable studies" showing "pollution's ill-effect on public health," I'd like for him to produce even one such study. Many certainly have tried over the last 40 years to link pollution with health effects. But these efforts however highly touted by eco-doomsayers have not meant success.

Scaremongering about pollution is so intellectually bankrupt that environmental activists now rely on the Sundance Kid's hunky charisma to persuade the public. If he pulls it off, he'll yet get that Oscar for acting.

Steven Milloy is the publisher of, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and the author of the upcoming book Junk Science Judo: Self-Defense Against Health Scares and Scams (Cato Institute, 2001). Mr. Milloy may be reached at