Yesterday, the Daily Kos and ThinkProgress reported on some spectacularly inane things that Texas Representative “Smokey Joe” Barton said about carbon dioxide. Now, Barton getting something wrong that involves science or the environment is, of course, nothing new. He is, after all, the man who recently Twittered his pride at “stumping” the Nobel Laureate Energy Secretary with a question that actually demonstrated nothing more than Barton’s own ignorance of basic geology. As revealing as that whole little incident was, he managed to make more mistakes yesterday.
Barton committed the errors in an interview he did with newsmax.com’s Ronald Kessler. Barton was expressing his disagreement with the EPA’s recent decision to regulate industrial carbon dioxide emissions as a greenhouse gas. Barton’s arguments took two separate, but equally inept, routes: carbon dioxide isn’t harmful; and the EPA’s new regulations could cause it to close down events like the Boston Marathon where an excessive amount of heavy breathing is taking place in a short period of time.
Barton’s first attempt – the “carbon dioxide isn’t bad” approach – took the following form:
Under Obama, the EPA has issued an endangerment finding saying that carbon dioxide is a hazard to public health.
“Of course, they’ve not really given any explicit examples of that, because they can’t,” Barton says. “There’s never been anybody who’s been treated in an emergency room for CO2 poisoning. It doesn’t cause asthma; it doesn’t cause your eyes to water; it doesn’t cause cancer.”
When I told my wife, who is a physician, that a member of Congress said that nobody has ever been treated in an ER for CO2 poisoning, her reaction was instant, and predictable:
It is in fact possible for carbon dioxide to reach life-threatening levels far before a lack of oxygen becomes a problem. And it happens. The technical name for this is “hypercapnia“. It’s not a particularly common condition, and the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is nowhere near enough to lead to hypercapnia under normal conditions, but it is real. If you ever watched Apollo 13, you might recall that concerns about CO2 poisoning actually played a large role in both the movie and the real incident.
Barton continued by presenting some data of unknown (but highly suspicious) origin:
Barton says the average healthy adult exhales between four-tenths of a ton and seven-tenths of a ton of CO2 a year.
I honestly don’t know where he got that from, but I don’t think reality was involved in any way. Even if I use a set of assumptions that are all favorable to Barton (Short tons instead of metric, 2g/L density for CO2, 4% CO2 in exhaled air, and 750mL tidal volume), an average human being would have to breathe 20 times a minute every minute of every day to produce 0.7 tons of CO2. An “average healthy adult” is not going to exhale anything remotely close to 0.7 tons of CO2 annually. In fact, I’m not sure that most olympic athletes release that much CO2.
Even if you do the math using an average minute volume of 8 liters per minute, which is the upper end of the generally accepted human norm, the average person only produces 0.37 tons of C02 per year – which is under the lower end of the range Barton gave.
OK. That takes care of medical and physiological ignorance and pulling numbers out of thin air. Next, we get to an inability to do the minimal amount of math necessary to keep a lie straight:
“So if you put 20,000 marathoners into a confined area, you could consider that a single source of pollution, and you could regulate it,” Barton says. “The key would be whether the EPA said that 20,000 people running the same route was one source or not.”
Barton is basing that assertion on a regulatory cutoff of 250 tons of CO2 per year. Let’s do the simple math that he didn’t do.
If we take Barton’s asininely high 0.7 tons per year average human CO2 emission, that works out to an “average” human emission of 72.5g/hr. Let’s assume that the exertion required to run the marathon results in four times as much CO2 being released – at 5% CO2, that requires moving 48L/min, which is probably outside the realm of the possible for most of the human population, but what the hell – that gives us 290g of CO2 per marathoner per hour.
250 short tons converts to 226796185 g. Assuming a 5-hour event (lots of slow marathoners), that requires the production of 45359237g of CO2 per hour of the marathon. If we divide that by the 290g of CO2 per runner per hour that I came up with above, we find that it would actually take more than 156,000 runners to produce 250 tons of CO2.
For some strange reason, I don’t think the EPA is going to worry about the Boston Marathon anytime soon.
Newsmax, predictably enough, challenged exactly none of Barton’s amazingly stupid claims.
Of course, all of this talk about exhaled carbon dioxide ignores and distracts from the more important point: the environmental effects of carbon dioxide that is produced by burning fossil fuels are very different from the effects of breathing. That particular branch of Representative Barton’s inanity is a whole post in itself – and one that I’ll have up here tomorrow morning.