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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Deceitful Attacks from the League of Women Voters

New ads accuse two senators of endangering children's lives by voting to allow asthma-causing "emissions" to be released from smokestacks and tailpipes. But in reality, all that the senators voted to curb was the government's attempt to regulate carbon dioxide and other "greenhouse" gasses, which have no direct connection to asthma, and an indirect connection that is a matter of debate in the medical community.

The League of Women Voters said April 29 that it would put at least $1 million behind its "ad blitz" and a related Internet campaign. The ads feature a child struggling to breath and accuse Republican Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts and Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri of voting to allow "smokestack and tailpipe" emissions responsible for thousands of hospital visits and serious asthma-related illnesses.

The ads invite viewers to think — wrongly — that Sens. Brown and McCaskill voted to ease restrictions on common pollutants specifically covered by the Clean Air Act. These include nitrogen oxides, sulphur dioxide and particulate matter, such as diesel soot. In one of the ads a child is even shown drawing a picture and coloring the sky a sooty black. Those toxic pollutants, commonly associated with "smokestacks" and "tailpipes," do indeed cause respiratory problems. But the votes cast by Sens. Brown and McCaskill had nothing to do with them. The vote McCaskill cast specifically excludes tailpipe emissions, in fact.

The truth is that these ads attack the two senators for their stances on colorless, odorless carbon dioxide and other invisible "greenhouse" gasses. Viewers would need to do some serious homework to discover that. On screen, the graphics give only amendment numbers and an April 6 date. Both those votes turn out to deal only with the Environmental Protection Agency's moves to regulate greenhouse gasses.

McCaskill is attacked for her vote on amendment number 215, which would have suspended for two years any EPA actions "with respect to carbon dioxide or methane pursuant to certain proceedings, other than with respect to motor vehicle emissions."  (Our emphasis added.) McCaskill was one of several Democrats to cosponsor that amendment, along with chief sponsor Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia. It would have required 60 votes to pass, but got only 12, including three from Republicans.

The ad against Brown attacks him for supporting amendment number 183, which would have prohibited EPA "from promulgating any regulation concerning, taking action relating to, or taking into consideration the emission of a greenhouse gas to address climate change." It also needed 60 votes, and failed on a 50-50 tie with only four Democrats voting in favor. McCaskill was not among them.

Carbon Dioxide and Asthma

We wondered how the League of Women Voters justifies a claim that carbon dioxide could be linked to the sort of suffocating asthma attacks pictured in these ads. The group sent us backup material that included a memo stating:

League of Women Voters: EPA and health professionals agree carbon dioxide pollution is a major health threat – exacerbating respiratory illnesses, increasing hospital visits and even causing premature death.

That's an exaggeration. It is true that EPA has declared CO2, in combination with other greenhouse gasses, to be a threat to public health. It did so as a prerequisite to finalizing proposed greenhouse gas emission standards. In its technical findings, EPA went so far as to say that "climate change is expected to increase regional ozone pollution, with associated risks in respiratory illnesses and premature death."

But do "health experts agree" that CO2 will exacerbate asthma and lead to hospitalizations and deaths"? No, they don't. Some see an indirect link between CO2 and asthma, but others find the evidence unconvincing.

It's true that some scientific studies have found that higher CO2 levels promote growth of ragweed and other plants whose pollen and spores can cause allergy symptoms, and Dr. Paul R. Epstein, of the Harvard Medical School's Center for Health and the Global Environment, has argued for years that these can in turn aggravate asthma symptoms. He summarized the research, and his reasoning, in an editorial published in 2008 in the September issue of the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, and in an article he coauthored for the February 2009 issue of Environmental Health Perspectives, another journal.

Recently, the American Medical Association accepted a grant from Dr. Epstein's organization to hold medical seminars for doctors around the country on this subject. The AMA's news site posted an April 4 editorial on a variety of possible health threats from rising world temperatures, including "production of ground-level ozone," which in turn means "more asthma and respiratory illnesses."

But there is considerable disagreement on whether increased CO2 leads to asthma attacks. We contacted the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, which says it is the largest professional medical organization in the United States devoted to the allergy/immunology specialty. The group referred us to a leading expert, Dr. David I. Bernstein, who has written extensively about asthma and is a professor of medicine at the University of Cincinnati School of Medicine in Cincinnati, Ohio. We asked him if there is scientific evidence connecting carbon dioxide or methane with asthma, and he said this:

Dr. Bernstein: To my knowledge, there is no convincing evidence in the medical literature indicating that CO2 and methane directly affect asthma symptoms, asthma morbidity or asthma mortality. This would be considered misinformation. We’re more concerned about ozone, particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide and sulphur dioxide.

We followed up by asking Dr. Bernstein about studies finding that CO2 stimulates pollen production, which may aggravate asthma. That "does not even begin to prove cause and effect," he said, adding that such claims are "walking on thin ice."

We won't attempt to settle this controversy here. What we can say is that while there's ample reason to be concerned, the scientific evidence we've seen so far falls short of conclusively establishing any firm connection between CO2 and asthma.

To sum up, we find the League of Women Voters' ads to be deceptive primarily because they lead viewers to think Sens. Brown and McCaskill voted to ease restrictions on the kinds of "emissions" that everybody agrees are health-threatening pollutants. That's not what the senators did. We would not have called the ads deceitful had they honestly said that the senators voted to block regulation of CO2 and other greenhouse gasses, the health effects of which are less certain.