FACT CHECK: GOP senator gasps for facts on asthma

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WASHINGTON (AP) - It was a startling claim: Air pollution has no connection to asthma, Kentucky GOP Sen. Rand Paul said on the Senate floor.

But Paul, and a chart he used to make his case against the health benefits of a new federal air pollution rule, relied on some creative sourcing and pseudoscience.

Paul’s chart was a graph showing air pollution declining in California as the number of people diagnosed with asthma rose. The chart attributed the data to a May 2003 paper by what was then called the California Department of Health Services. But the department never plotted the relationship between those two factors.

In fact, the department said asthma attacks “can be triggered by exposures and conditions such as respiratory infections, house dust mites, animal dander, mold, pollen, exercise, tobacco smoke, and indoor and outdoor air pollutants.”

Paul’s real source was a 2006 paper “Facts Not Fear on Air Pollution” from the National Center for Policy Analysis, a conservative think tank.

That paper, by independent consultant Joel Schwartz, contends that most air pollution information from environmentalists, regulators, scientists and journalists is exaggerated or wrong. The paper was not subjected to the normal peer-review process demanded for most published science.

Paul, an ophthalmologist and eye surgeon, cited Schwartz in his Nov. 10 remarks. “We have decreased pollution and rising incidence of asthma. Either they are inversely proportional or they are not related at all,” he said.

At best, the chart suggests that air pollution alone cannot explain the rise in asthma, a chronic lung disease that inflicts approximately 34 million people in the U.S. Its exact cause is unknown.

The chart certainly can’t be used to say that air pollution plays no role in causing asthma.

“They may think there is a pattern there, but in fact it has no basis,” said Dr. Richard Kreutzer, head of environmental and occupational disease control at what is now California’s Department of Public Health, the agency cited on Paul’s chart. Kreutzer said there is evidence that some pollutants can cause asthma and even more research showing that air pollution aggravates asthma in those who have the disease.

The National Institutes of Health said last year that “recent findings have conclusively demonstrated a link between asthma and air pollution, especially ground-level ozone.”

Schwartz, who now works for Blue Sky Consulting Group, discounts even studies linking pollution to asthma attacks, saying “they are probably not related.”

In an interview with The Associated Press, Schwartz defended his work. “The fact that they move in opposite directions shows that air pollution is not a large factor in the cause,” he said.

Dan Greenbaum, the president of the nonprofit Health Effects Institute, said such arguments “miss the point.” The institute receives funding from both the Environmental Protection Agency and the auto industry.

“No pulmonary doctor has said that the primary reason for the increase in asthma is air pollution. That is not the concern with air pollution and asthma,” Greenbaum said. “The concern is that if you have asthma, we have very strong evidence that you are sensitive to air pollution.”

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