The EPA as a Health Hazard

Commentary by Pete du Pont

Once again a bureaucrat determined to do something and a president who thinks he has found a heartstring to tug are proposing to do all the wrong things for all the wrong reasons.

And, if they are successful, once again we can expect the law of unintended consequences to operate, as asthmatic children suffer because of regulations aimed at alleviating their suffering, and other risks to health increase.

That, in a nutshell, is the story of the proposed new clean air standards.

On June 25, President Clinton endorsed the stringent new standards for particulate matter (soot) and ground-level ozone (smog) proposed by Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Carol Browner in November 1996. In support of his decision, the president cited EPA claims that the new standards will save asthmatic children's lives.

However, just a day earlier, the U.S. Conference of Mayors overwhelmingly voted to oppose the standards. Most governors, the National Black Chamber of Commerce, the National Indian Business Association, and the National Association of Neighborhoods have also asked that the president reject the proposed standards. Some Democrats in Congress are leading the fight to stop implementation of the standards.

Over the last 25 years the levels of particulate matter and ground-level ozone in the air have declined substantially. Nevertheless, Ms. Browner and the EPA want to reduce the size of regulated airborne particulate matter from 10 microns (10 millionths of a meter) to 2.5 microns in diameter and lower permissible ozone levels from .12 parts per million (ppm) to .08 ppm.

Many scientists argue that the proposed standards will have little if any effect on childhood asthma rates and could actually cause more premature deaths than they prevent. Researchers have pointed out that as the rate of asthma has been rising, ozone rates have fallen dramatically over the last 20 years. Indeed, while ozone levels have decreased by 18.5 percent since 1979, asthma rates have increased in all industrialized nations, rising by 45 percent in the United States.

So what's causing the increase? Comprehensive studies by the European Federation of Asthma and Allergy Associations found that increasingly sedentary lifestyles and indoor air problems are the primary causes. In addition, a July 1996 study by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases concluded that by far the leading cause of asthma is an allergic reaction to cockroach droppings and carcasses.

Since the EPA proposed the new soot standard it has been forced to reduce its estimate of the number of lives that would be saved by the standard from 40,000 to 20,000 and then to 15,000. The last reduction was due to the fact that an outside researcher found a simple mathematical error in the EPA's research.

The discovery of this error has led some analysts to believe that the EPA's entire statistical analysis is flawed. Dr. Kay Jones, former senior adviser on air quality at the President's Council on Environmental Quality, discovered the EPA's mathematical error. He completely reanalyzed the EPA's estimates and concluded that the number of lives saved should be only 840 instead of 15,000.

The news gets even worse. The EPA ignored the fact that ozone screens out potentially deadly ultraviolet radiation. According to a Department of Energy study, the required ozone reduction would cause 25 to 50 more deaths a year from malignant skin cancers, as many as 260 new cases of cutaneous melanoma, 11,000 new cases of nonmelanoma skin cancer; and between 13,000 and 28,000 new incidences of cataracts each year.

There have been estimates that the rules would cause a loss of at least 220,000 jobs and cost the average household about $1,200 per year in discretionary spending - and the American Thoracic Society has concluded that poverty is the number one risk factor for asthma.

Dr. Wendy Gramm, former administrator of the Office of Regulatory Affairs in the U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB), and Susan Dudley, vice president and director of environmental analysis at Economists, Inc., note that the OMB estimates that for every $9 million to $12 million decline in aggregate personal income one life is lost. Based on EPA cost estimates for the rules, they calculate that the new ozone standard alone could result in 7,000 deaths per year.

Health care professionals are admonished, "First, do no harm." At this point, it is up to Congress, by exercising its legitimate oversight authority to stop implementation of the standards, to constrain the EPA from doing harm, too.