Republicans called out a top EPA official for the agency's labeling of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, as a "pollutant," equating the gas humans exhale every day to air pollutants like smog and mercury.

Democrats, environmentalists and some media outlets have been using the phrase "carbon pollution" to describe carbon dioxide that is released into the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas. But Republicans aren't hearing it anymore.

"It sounds so sinister," Mississippi Republican Sen. Roger Wicker told Janet McCabe, the head of EPA's clean air office, in a hearing on power plants rules held Wednesday. "But actually they are talking about carbon dioxide … It doesn't cause lung disease in children, it doesn't cause asthma," Wicker said.

A major justification for EPA rules cutting carbon dioxide from U.S. power plants is that reducing emissions will bring about billions of dollars in public health benefits. But these alleged health benefits are not specifically from reducing carbon dioxide — they come from reducing particulate matter, mercury and other conventional air pollutants when power plants are closed.

Reducing carbon dioxide on its own would have no direct impact on public health since it's not an actual pollutant. Breathing in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere doesn't cause illness or death. In fact, humans breathe out about 2.3 pounds of carbon dioxide per day. Carbon dioxide is also a necessary component of life on Earth — there would be no plant life without it.

In McCabe's testimony, she said "soot and smog reductions that will be achieved along with reductions in carbon pollution alone will yield $7 in health benefits for every dollar we invest in meeting the standards," tying EPA rules reducing carbon dioxide from power plants to improving public health.

So why is it now called "pollution"? In 2009, the EPA determined that carbon dioxide indirectly harms public health because it fuels global warming, which the agency says will cause more extreme weather and worsen air quality.

Ever since this 2009 determination, the Obama administration has labelled CO2 as "carbon pollution" to make it sound as if the greenhouse gas was the same as conventional pollutants. Democrats have also latched on to that talking point.

"By reducing carbon pollution, we can also cut many types of air pollutants that threaten human health," Boxer said in the hearing. "We know climate change and rising temperatures will lead to increased ground level ozone and smog, and air pollutants from wildfires, and more heat-related and flood-related deaths."

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