Con: Proposal ignores vast improvements in U.S. air quality

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H. Sterling Burnett
November 19, 2007
EDITOR’S NOTE: The writer is addressing the question, “Should the EPA move forward with its proposal to raise the nation’s air quality standards?”

Despite the impression given by environmental lobbyists and their supporters, air quality in the United States is already the best it has been since before the industrial revolution and is continuing to improve.

For ozone—that’s smog to you and me—the pollutants that combine to form it are declining. For instance, nationwide between 1980 and 2005, nitrogen dioxide levels have decreased 37 percent and volatile organic compounds emissions fell 47 percent. As a result, peak 8-hour ozone levels declined 20 percent, and days per year exceeding the eight-hour standard fell 79 percent.

This has meant cleaner air for the public with only 19 percent of the nation’s metropolitan areas violating the EPA’s current ozone standard, down from 40 percent just a few years ago. In addition, only 4 percent of nonmetropolitan counties violate the current standard. Ongoing programs should reduce ozone even further.

Despite this progress, the Environmental Protection Agency has proposed a new federal standard for ozone that would put 67 percent to 87 percent of metropolitan areas and 39 percent to 72 percent of nonmetropolitan counties in violation.

Because the proposed standard would be lower than the natural levels of ozone in some areas, many cities and counties could risk a budget shortfall or even bankruptcy trying to meet the new EPA standard—and still fail.

A more stringent ozone standard might be worthwhile if current ozone levels posed a significant threat to human health, and if making the standard stricter were cost free. However, neither of these conditions hold true.

Indeed, the EPA admits that the new standard would, at best, only reduce hospital visits for asthma and other respiratory diseases by a few tenths of a percent while costing as much as $22 billion per year.

As air researcher Joel Schwartz has argued even the minuscule benefits claimed for the proposed standard are likely a gross overestimate. Claims that ozone is causing a rise in asthma are simply not plausible.

As evidence, while the prevalence of asthma has risen about 75 percent during the last 25 years—and nearly doubled for children—during the same time period, ozone levels have fallen.

In addition, worldwide the lowest asthma rates are found in developing and ex-Soviet countries with substantial air pollution, while western countries with the world’s cleanest air have the highest asthma rates. And emergency room visits and hospitalizations for asthma in the United States are lowest during July and August, when ozone levels are highest.

Laboratory studies using animals and human volunteers back up this finding. Studies exposing animals to 10 times the ozone levels found in the most polluted American cities didn’t kill the animals. And college student volunteers who breathed concentrations of ozone 50 percent greater than the current standard while vigorously exercising for six hours registered only small, short-term changes in lung function.

Even the EPA acknowledges that if ozone isn’t killing people, the benefits it predicts will flow from the new standard won’t be realized.

By contrast, there is a well-established relationship between wealth and health. Lower household incomes associated with increased risk of premature death.

By this measure, the health cost of tougher ozone standards is high. Using U.S. Office of Management and Budget estimates that every $7.5 million to $12 million in regulatory costs imposed on the economy results in a life lost and the EPA’s cost estimate the new ozone regulations could result in 833 to 2,933 premature deaths.

The newly proposed EPA standard poses a significant risk of public harm with little reason to expect much in the way of benefits. Accordingly, the EPA should withdraw its proposal to tighten the ozone standard and acknowledge that the current standard already protects Americans’ health with room to spare.

H. Sterling Burnett is a senior fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis (www.ncpa.org), a conservative free-market think-tank. NCPA is funded in part by the oil industry, which has a financial interest in the air-quality issue. Readers may write to him at NCPA/DC, 601 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Suite 900 South Building, Washington, D.C. 20004.

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