The EPA's Dirty Little Secrets

Commentary by H. Sterling Burnett

Citing concern for the health of asthmatic children, President Clinton on June 25 endorsed stringent clean air standards for particulate matter (soot) and ground-level ozone (smog), first proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in November 1996. The EPA claims that the new standards - which become law on July 17 unless Congress vetoes them within the next 60 days - will save asthmatic children's lives. However, many scientists disagree with this conclusion - just one of the facts the EPA is trying to hide from the public. And unless someone exposes the EPA's dirty little secrets, it will impose regulations on the nation that have the unintended consequence of harming more people than they would help.

Over the last 25 years the levels of particulate matter and ground-level ozone in the air have declined substantially. Despite this progress, the EPA wants 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.

However, almost a quarter of the nation is unable to meet current clean air standards. In addition, many scientists disagree with the EPA's assessment, arguing that the current standards are satisfactory. Some scientists even fear that the new standards will halt the progress currently being made and lead to worse public health.

What are the health facts that the EPA has hidden? First, while asthma has been rising, ground-level 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. (See the figure).

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 carcasses and "tail pipe emissions."

Second, even members of the EPA's own Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC) disagree on the need for stricter standards. Although Administrator Carol Browner stated that the science supporting the new clean air standards is indisputable, CASAC was split on what standards to set, if any. Eight committee members argued that no standards are justified because it is doubtful that setting a standard would yield tangible health benefits and the remaining 13 members were split over whether current standards are too strict, not strict enough or just about right.

Third, 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 doubt the EPA's entire statistical analysis. 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 would be only 840 instead of 15,000.

Not only are the EPA's findings questionable, the new standards might actually be harmful since ozone screens out potentially deadly ultraviolet radiation. According to a Department of Energy study, the required ozone reduction would cause 25 to 50 more skin cancer deaths a year, 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 also 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 - ironically, the American Thoracic Society has concluded that poverty is the number one risk factor for asthma.

Researchers 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.

Exposing these dirty little secrets can lead to only one reasonable conclusion - the EPA needs to clean up its act more than it needs to clean up the air. At least this is the conclusion of many of the nation's mayors and governors who are also concerned about the health of children. They have asked Congress to stop implementation of the standards until more evidence is compiled on the health effects of soot and smog. Some Congressional Democrats seem prepared to do just that, thereby fighting their own party's leader until a clearer understanding is available of the health problems the standards pose. By denying implementation of the rules until the EPA can answer the serious criticisms made against them, Congress would leave doctors and scientists in charge of saving our lives and put itself back in charge of saving us from the EPA.