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To the EPA, "safe" is a constantly moving target--and that's the way it likes it. Always something new to regulate, always a new hobgoblin from which to save us. Take the agency's proposal to yet again lower allowable ozone levels. It's another one of those win-win regulations for which the EPA is famous, supposedly saving both lives and money. But its assertions collapse when you examine the science on which they're allegedly based.
U.S. ground-level ozone concentrations have fallen by 25% since 1980 and 14% just since 1990. Yet in 1997 the EPA tightened the screws with what it called a "safe" standard at 80 parts per billion (ppb). Then in 2008 "safe" became 75 ppb. Now the agency insists "safe" is a maximum of between 60 ppb and 70 ppb. No doubt the agency is already laying the groundwork to drop the "safe" level yet again.
Along with the 60 ppb to 70 ppb standard the EPA has proposed a secondary one, measured differently and meant to help not humans but vegetation. For some areas, according to Roger McClellan, former chairman of the EPA's Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC), this could be even more onerous than a 60 ppb eight-hour standard.
Depending on where the standard is set, the EPA estimates that by 2020 the proposal will cost $19 billion to $90 billion to implement. That's partly because 300 U.S. communities don't even comply with the current standard, while no urban area in California meets the 1997 one.
Still, the agency says there will be 1,500 to 12,000 fewer premature deaths by 2020, out of the over 2.4 million Americans who die annually. Proving there is such a thing as a free lunch, it claims there will actually be health benefits worth $13 billion to $100 billion--hence the supposed savings.
Ground-level ozone, a component of smog, forms when hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides react with sunlight. Ozone comes from such sources as power plants, vehicle exhaust and refineries, as well as lawnmowers and personal products like hair spray cans. Ohio, for example, has already had to crack down on hair spray, deodorants, car wax and windshield washer fluid.
At high enough levels ozone makes breathing more difficult and may cause or exacerbate asthma attacks and other respiratory conditions. Since nobody actually dies in ozone lab experiments, the evidence for fatalities must come from studies showing mere statistical associations. Many such published, generally by members of the public health establishment, have indeed tied ozone spikes to small subsequent increases in deaths.
But other researchers see a lot of subjective interpretation going on--if not outright efforts to justify preconceived conclusions.
Many of the studies look at a large database of U.S. cities. Yet an Inhalation Toxicology article last year showed that only six of 95 cities in the database actually had a statistically significant association between ozone and deaths. One even showed a significant protective effect.
But rather than count 89 negatives against just six positives, those wanting to show that ozone kills simply pool all the findings. Because the six positive cities are especially large, like New York, in an average they pull the other 89 with them--and just inside the bounds of statistical significance.
"I don't think their methodology is valid," says University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, statistician Richard L. Smith, lead author of the Inhalation Toxicology article, says. "Why was there no ozone effect in the overwhelming majority of cities?"
Suresh Moolgavkar of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center also observes that ozone levels in California tend to be higher than in the rest of the country and yet in the data show less of a health impact. "When you find different effects in different parts of the country, it's suspicious to assume that it's ozone causing the mortality," he says.
Smith says it's common for the same methodology, and hence same problems or mistakes, to simply be copied over from one study to the next. This allows the EPA to point to what appears to be a large and consistent supporting body of evidence.
There's more than number game-playing going on, though. The statistical studies ozone alarmists use measure ozone increases over eight hours. But this "makes no biological sense" says Michael Honeycutt, a toxicologist with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. "Most people are indoors for 90% of the time." A one-hour measurement would be more sensible, he says. But those measurements are the least likely to show harm--and thus be least useful to the alarmists.
He says another consistent problem is eliminating the effect of other pollutants. Yet because they often come from the same sources when one of these other pollutants goes up, so to do the ozone levels. Ozone may be an innocent bystander, so to speak.
Using a careful scientist's guarded language, Smith concludes, "I wouldn't completely dismiss the possibility" that current ozone levels kill people prematurely, but "I'm not very confident" that they do.
Yet, says McClellan, the EPA is pushing allowable limits right down to natural levels produced by such sources as vegetation fires, nitric oxide leached from soil and hydrocarbons from plants. He notes that Wyoming, the least-populated lower-48 state, "already has lots of areas in violation." Honeycutt says "Big Bend National Park [in Texas], out in the middle of nowhere, has a 66 ppb level. So if they set the standard at 65, Big Bend's in violation. How do you solve that?"
Despite all this, McClellan points out that the regulation-drunk EPA has already set the stage for a stricter standard by intentionally relying on older data. Once the proposed regulations go into effect, "They can say it's clear there's new information, and my prediction is that when they close the books on the next review they're going to have a higher body count which will support yet a lower standard."