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Okay, let’s be fair. Punctilious honesty has not been the Clinton administration’s strong suit. But every bell curve has its extremes — its outliers, as it were. The word "outlier" brings to mind Environmental Protection Agency administrator Carol Browner and her new air pollution standards.
These proposals, to be enforced under the Clean Air Act, would increase burdens on automobiles, factories, and utilities that could range from installing filters to using different fuels to ceasing operations altogether.
One type of pollution targeted by the new standards is particles in the air. Particulate matter (PM) can be solid or liquid, emitted directly or formed in the atmosphere when gaseous pollutants (called "precursors") interact. One common way of categorizing particulate matter is by size. "PM10" includes particles up to 10 microns wide — about a hundredth the width of a human hair.
Currently, EPA regulates only PM10, while the new standards would also regulate "fine particles," 2.5 microns wide or less. Most PM2.5 comes from sulfur dioxide (produced by power plants and manufacturing plants) and nitrogen oxide (from power plants, manufacturing plants, and vehicles), combined with oxygen.
The second type of pollution EPA seeks to further regulate is ground-level ozone, or "photochemical smog." This is formed when two precursor gases, volatile organic compounds (mostly from vehicles, but also from freshly applied paints and solvents, backyard barbecues, and industrial processes such as baking bread and dry cleaning) and nitrogen oxide, mix and are "cooked" by sunlight.
Those are the facts upon which all can agree. Then the truth gets wrapped up in a demagogic fog. For every fib Browner tells, there is at least one fact that belies her.
FACT: Regarding ozone, the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee said there was no scientific basis for choosing a new standard; they called it a "policy judgment." As to particulates, only six of the 21 committee members agreed with EPA’s proposed 24-hour and annual standards for PM2.5. Only four members said the allowable level of PM2.5 should be set as low as EPA wanted.
In a June 1996 letter to Browner, the committee said EPAs "deadlines did not allow adequate time to analyze, integrate, interpret, and debate the available data." But, added George Wolff, the chairman of the committee: " There does not appear to be any compelling reason to set a restrictive PM2.5 [standard] at this time."
For all of Browner’s talk of 86 studies, "The database for actual levels of PM2.5 is also very poor, and only a handful of studies have actually studied PM2.5 effects, per se," notes Bierbaum. Even with the help of one of the Particle-Hunter Triumvirate members, Harvard researcher Douglas Dockery, I was able to locate only 13 studies of PM2.5 specifically. Four looked for associations with premature deaths. Of these, two found statistically significant associations with particle increases and two did not.
This isn’t the only kind of lawn mower the EPA wants to regulate.
Nine studies looked for associations between fine particles and non-fatal illness. Of these, four showed no association with any of the symptoms. Five showed a statistically significant association with some of the symptoms measured, but these symptoms showed up in some studies and not others.
FACT: To achieve the alleged savings, the EPA refrains from performing a full cost-benefit analysis. But the act of removing pollution from the air increases in cost as the air gets cleaner: Each ton of pollutant is more expensive to remove or prevent than the previous ton, and each ton removed or prevented has less effect on health. It might cost $10 million to save the first ten lives from some danger — and $100 million to save ten more lives. Thus, by using only a partial analysis, the EPA disguises the real costs.
It also assigns a value of $4.8 million to each premature death prevented, even though the potential victims are people in poor health with a life expectancy of one to two years. By contrast, the Department of Transportation assigns a value of $2.7 million to deaths, although these are accidental deaths of healthy people with a life expectancy of 38 more years.
FIB: When it comes to ozone, the benefits from tighter standards won’t save us much in health costs, but they won’t cost much either.
Accessory to murder?
FACT: To reach its estimate that the cost of implementing the new regulations will be between $600 million and $2.5 billion, EPA assumes that compliance will not be complete. The president’s Council of Economic Advisers, however, did a "full attainment" estimate and placed the costs as high as $60 billion. The Reason Public Policy Institute reached a similar figure, while George Mason’s Center for the Study of Public Choice put it somewhere between $54 billion and $328 billion.
On the benefit side, EPA makes assumptions that defy credulity. While the Council of Economic Advisers values the benefits at practically nothing, the EPA values the prevention of a single case of non-fatal bronchitis at a stunning $587,500.
FACT: In 1994, EPA already had plans to regulate lawn mowers. "The small gasoline engines that Americans use in yard and garden work are a significant source of air pollution," Browner said that year. In 1996, EPA promulgated emissions standards for lawn mowers. A Pentagon document noted that to comply with "the current ozone standards, EPA proposed [restricting the use of] even lawn mowers and other small engines."
One state, California, already regulates barbecue grills, leaf blowers, and paint. Denver severely restricts the use of wood-burning fireplaces and has outlawed them in new homes. Regulators in San Francisco have urged residents to refrain from using aerosol deodorants and alcohol-based perfumes to reduce ozone-creating gases.
"It’s a cruel hoax to lead parents to believe their children will be protected from having asthma if only the EPA clamps down on outdoor air pollution," says Robert Phalen, a biomedical scientist who for 22 years has directed the Air Pollution Health Effects Laboratory at the University of California in Irvine.
Indeed, Phalen believes EPA’s whole new regulatory scheme is a cruel hoax. And if it’s the child card you want to play, consider: The new regulations won’t kick in until the next century, with costs then steadily rising. Long after Carol Browner and Bill Clinton have settled into retirement, who do you think is going to pay the price for their prevarications?