The EPA's Hot Air

January 01, 1997  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  The Weekly Standard  ·  Epa

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.

  1. FIB: Browner is not only on the side of the angels, she says; she is also on the side of solid science. As she said at a November 27, 1996, press conference, on air pollution, "the scientific findings are clear."
  2. FACT: One scientist recently summed up the situation as to particulates this way: "Current data do not support clear associations of [premature mortality] effects with either fine particles (PM2.5), inhalable particles PM10 or PM15." She is Rosina Bierbaum, assistant director for the environment at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
  3. FIB: Browner has said over and over, including in testimony before Congress in February, that the EPA’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee reviewed " 86 studies . . . indicating that our current air standards are not adequately protecting the public’s health."
  4. 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."

  5. FIB: Browner speaks of the "consistency and coherence" of the studies on particulates.
  6. FACT: Three men, who receive lots of EPA funding, do consistently find that particulates are unhealthy. One formerly worked for the agency, and he and another member of this "Particle-Hunter Triumvirate" were advisers to a 1996 report by the Natural Resources Defense Council (the folks who brought us the Alar scare) claiming that an amazing 64,000 Americans are killed each year by air pollution. Other researchers seem consistently unable to find these same effects — notably in their research on Salt Lake County, Birmingham, Philadelphia, Detroit, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and Steubenville.

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.

  1. FIB: In her February 12 testimony before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Browner presented a poster entitled "Soot/Particulate Matter: The Science Calls for Action." It summarized five of the 13 PM2.5 studies.
  2. FACT: Even of these five, only one clearly supports the "adverse health effect" Browner’s poster claimed. Another comprised results from six cities, only three of which had statistically significant associations between PM2.5 and harm. The three with harmful associations were on the chart, while the three that showed no injury from fine particles were left off.
  3. FIB: Far from costing us money, the particulate-matter regulations will generate health-cost savings that amount to a tremendous windfall.
  4. 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.

  5. 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?

  6. 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.

  7. FIB: Browner claims the new standards will save 15,000 lives and prevent 500,000 respiratory problems annually.
  8. FACT: Economists have long accepted that "wealth equals health." Wealthier people can afford better health care, better hygiene, and safer occupations. By diverting wealth, regulation suppresses health. W. Kip Viscusi of Harvard calculates that "every $ 50 million spent on regulation induces one statistical death." Depending on whose estimate of the cost of EPA’s new regulations is used, they could actually cause tens of thousands of such deaths every year.
  9. FIB: The clean-air standards are "not about outdoor barbecues and lawn mowers," says Browner, dodging charges that Americans could be forced to change their lifestyles. When industry spokesmen bring up these issues, Browner smears their claims as "junk science" and "scare tactics" that are " fake," "wrong," and "manipulative." The environmentalists back her up. Talk about barbecues and lawn mowers is "crazed propaganda," says Frank O’Donnell, executive director of the Clean Air Trust.
  10. 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.

  11. FIB: Asked at the June 26 press conference, "Do you have estimates for how many counties will fall out of compliance?" Browner pleaded ignorance on this sensitive issue. "We don’t at this time. We are still looking at that," she said.
  12. FACT: The EPA staff paper on particulates states that counties not complying with the fine-particle regulation will quadruple from 41 to 167. The staff paper on ozone says that the non-complying counties will more than triple in number. (Outside evaluators say the EPA numbers are too low.) You can even go to EPA’s web site and see whether your county is a potential offender.
  13. FIB: Taking her cue from her boss, who plays the "child card" at every opportunity, Browner invokes children as major beneficiaries of the new proposals. "When it comes to protecting our kids," she intoned at a recent press conference, "I will not be swayed."
  14. FACT: According to EPA’s own staff papers, to the extent there are premature deaths from air pollution they will be among "vulnerable individuals, primarily the elderly and individuals with preexisting respiratory disease." Even the National Resources Defense Council admitted in its 1996 report, "The elderly and those with heart and lung disease are at greatest risk of premature mortality due to particulate air pollution."
  15. FIB: Rising rates of asthma are caused by air pollution. Top White House environmental official Kathleen McGinty told reporters at the June 26 press conference that smog "seriously [exacerbates] asthma conditions and other lung ailments, and that particularly [affects] children. Asthma is on the rise throughout the United States."
  16. FACT: Asthma is indeed rising sharply among children — even as pollution is dropping. All six of the major air pollutants EPA monitors have declined over the last decade, including ozone and PM10. Two researchers recently wrote in Science magazine that these "suggest that asthma prevalence has increased because of something lacking in the urban environment, rather than through the positive actions of some toxic factor." Then in May, researchers reported that the major cause of asthma in inner cities (where rates are by far the highest) is neither cars nor corporations but cockroaches.

"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?