The science of propaganda

The tweaking and twisting of an Atlanta air pollution study

On Dec. 1, Ron Wyzga stood in the Murrow Room of the National Press Club in Washington and told a pack of reporters gathered for a press conference that studies in Atlanta linked air pollution to adverse health effects in humans.

At first glance, Wyzga was talking about some seemingly boring stuff. But to health researchers, there was something hidden between the lines of Wyzga's announcement. To environmentalists, Wyga's words were even more sinister.

"Our findings show that there is a statistical link between air pollution and health effects, particularly with several types of cardiovascular disease," said Wyzga, an influential researcher who's been studying environmental and health issues for 25 years. "The pollutants of most concern are carbon monoxide and carbon-containing particles in atmosphere."

It sounds like the kind of stuff Atlantans would want to hear a respected scientist say. The problem is, Wyzga only mentions carbon, which is emitted by automobiles. He doesn't mention the link between lung ailments and sulfur pollutants, which are emitted by coal-burning power plants - such as those run by Georgia Power.

Wyzga, it just so happens, works for the Electric Power Research Institute, an advocacy group funded by power companies.

Some of the researchers working on the Atlanta air studies Wyzga referenced say he came dangerously close to misleading the public by pointing to carbon and only carbon - and completely overlooking sulfur pollutants as one of the major sources of Atlanta's air pollution.

What's more, the way Wyzga's words were later used offers a textbook example of how science can be subtly twisted to fit the purpose of special interest groups - in this case, a power company.

But it's not as if Wyzga, who holds a doctorate in environmental statistics from Harvard University, lied. Nor did he stretch the truth. The fact is, data collected from a six-year, $10 million study conducted by Emory, Georgia Tech, and other research institutions does show a link between carbon-based pollution and emergency room visits for heart problems.

"I'm not saying carbon is the culprit," Wyzga says. "But what I want to do is call attention to it, and I want other people to start looking at it as well."

A study published in the January 2003 edition of the Journal of the Air & Waste Management Association, found that carbon emissions from cars were responsible for spikes in Atlanta air pollution in the morning. (Spikes in the afternoon were traced to sulfur-based compounds.)

But Paige Tolbert, an Emory professor and the lead researcher of two of the studies that Wyzga referenced, is troubled by Wyzga's failure to mention another branch of the study that focuses on respiratory problems and found a link to sulfur pollutants.

"That's singling out individual results from a study," Tolbert says. "It's kind of handpicking which associations to mention. ... There are then some interpretations that flow from that statement that aren't appropriate."

Tolbert's fears that Wyzga's "handpicking" would be misinterpreted came true on Jan. 11, at a state Environmental Protection Division public meeting in Cartersville. The meeting was called to explain the process for renewing the operating permit for Plant Bowen, Georgia Power's biggest and, for some pollutants, dirtiest power plant.

A woman at the meeting asked whether Georgia Power knew if its power plant emissions caused adverse health affects. Chuck Huling, Georgia Power director of environmental affairs, answered, "The major results of those studies have shown carbon material - be it from wood fires, smoke, carbon monoxide and other combustion processes - plays a larger role as far as health effects go than does sulfur."

Whoa! In other words, Huling, giving Wyzga's statement a slight twist, told everyone at the meeting that burning wood is more detrimental to human health than pollutant-spurting power plants.

Georgia Power spokesman John Sell defends Huling's statement. "I'm not sure that anybody in a public meeting would differentiate between cardiovascular or respiratory for the purposes of trying to explain to the public the cause or effects of emissions," Sell says. "I think what you're trying to do at that point is give a basic message that most of your audience can understand."

Not so, Tolbert says. "By no means whatsoever would the results rule out health effects of emissions from power plants," she says. "That would be an entirely inappropriate conclusion."

She says the oversimplification of complex scientific research is a major problem, especially when the oversimplifying starts at a press conference thrown by a power plant advocacy group.

"When that happens, very quickly things get interpreted and quoted by other people," Tolbert says, "and then reported and restated until someone takes the leap and says that our study results do not in any way indicate that power plants are the source of any health problems, which is completely inappropriate."

Even Wyzga says the conclusion Huling drew in Cartersville is a tad off.

CL asked Wyzga for his thoughts on the statement, "The major results of the Atlanta studies have shown that carbon pollution plays a larger role as far as health effects go than does sulfur."

Wyzga responded: "I can't stop people from spinning either way. Spinning can potentially discredit the study. The problem is, the non-scientists don't understand, or try to simplify."