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This is a version of a question I ask students in my Environmental Economics courses. The answer is obviously yes to many people. But that answer is obviously wrong, otherwise why would I create a blog entry about it?

Just because something seems like a “bad” thing does not make it pollution (notice I did not say pollutant). In fact, just because it seems “bad” does not even make it that. Dealing with the latter first. Oil was long considered a nuisance, particularly aggravating to farmers and people trying to get a clean drink. In fact, land that had oil on it was priced at a discount to land that did not have oil on it because it was less “productive” given the then state of knowledge and technology. Something changed in the mid-19th century, and what was once “bad” became “good.” A good question is what is responsible for this. A more fun question is whether you would consider “oil” bad or good today, and what reasons you have to make such a claim – perhaps we’ll dedicate a longer future post on this.

The former question is of more interest here. Let us grant that asbestos dust is “bad” and that spent uranium is “bad”, whatever that means. It still is not clear that these qualify as pollution. What if you created some asbestos dust, but always wore a mask, never let any outside of your home, and collected it all in a nice silver urn to place on your mantle? What if you took spent uranium and had a nice heavy duty lead urn made and placed it on the mantle alongside the asbestos urn? Would either of those cases make it pollution?

No. And the reason why the answer is no is that these “bads” in each situation did not impose any unpaid for costs on other agents. I suppose you can argue that they are pollution because neighbors might simply live in fear with the knowledge that they are there, and someday can be unleashed on them. But how is that any different than neighbors worrying about me taking my tank of gasoline and burning down their homes? Or any different than them imagining the horror of seeing me naked in the shower (we keep our blinds closed, but that does not change the fact that I am naked in the shower every day!) If we get to the point where we treat the thought of something bad as being reason enough to regulate it, ban it, or otherwise pay taxes on it … well, it would certainly be a far less pleasurable world to live in.

One Response to “Is Absestos Dust or Spent Uranium Pollution?”

  1. harry says:

    Today while cleaning out the pickup shed, moving some finished lumber into the manure spreader shed attached to the barn, I looked up at the ceiling and saw three blackened panels. Those panels were put there sixty years ago, to prevent the tractor, which powered the hammermill with a wide, long belt, from burning down the barn when we turned corn cobs into feed.

    Those panels are undoubtedly asbestos products. They don’t bother me, but my first thought was how I could go up on my big step ladder, take them down with a crowbar, and somehow dispose of them before the environmental police come around and
    declare my property a Superfund site.

    Such paranoia is stoked by the many commercials I see on television, where spokesmen (never spokeswomen) hawk their litigation wares, pronouncing “asbestos” differently.

    To your point: irrational fear should not cause our governors to punish innocent, even constructive, behavior. Those panels will cause no harm, even if the barn collapses 200 years from now, or is razed ten years from now for a new Township Building. The asbestos is not radioactive, but it is often treated as such.

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