EPA Policy Ignores Declines in U.S. Air Pollution

Published September 1, 2004

According to a statement issued to the press on June 29 by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Mike Leavitt, reducing fine particulate matter is “the single most important action we can take to make our air healthier.” Leavitt’s proclamation accompanied EPA’s determination that 243 counties in the United States, which are home to 100 million people, are likely to be designated in November as Clean Air Act “non-attainment” areas for fine particulate matter (PM2.5).

On June 30, the Associated Press reported that once the non-attainment areas are designated, “state officials will have to develop plans aimed at cutting the pollution by 2010 or 2015, depending on the severity of the air quality problem, or face sanctions, including possible loss of highway funds.”

A Reuters story on the EPA announcement quoted Vicki Patton of Environmental Defense as declaring, “EPA needs to take swift action to cut the dangerous pollution from power plant smokestacks or millions of Americans will be left gasping for clean air.” Other U.S. environmentalists joined Patton in using EPA’s announcement as an opportunity to suggest the nation’s PM2.5 levels are too high, and that nothing is being done to clean them up.

Power Plant Emissions Down

The reduction of power plant emissions Patton calls for has already been achieved, according to EPA statistics. The agency reduced the amount of oxides of nitrogen (NOx) and sulfur dioxide (SO2) allowed to be emitted by coal-fired power plants by about 30 percent between 1990 and 2000.

The effects of these actions can be seen in the air: Ambient SO2, NOx, and sulfate particulate matter (PM) all declined by about 30 percent between 1989 and 2002, according to EPA statistics. The Clean Air Act requires an additional 20 percent reduction in SO2 between 2000 and 2010, and EPA just implemented an additional 60 percent NOx reduction from coal-fired power plants during the May-September ozone season.

EPA’s recently proposed Interstate Air Quality Rule would reduce power plant NOx and SO2 emissions by an additional 65 percent and 70 percent, respectively, below current requirements.

Air Particulates in Sharp Decline

Particulate levels in the United States are lower than at any time since the industrial revolution. Particulate matter in the air has declined more than 80 percent since the early 1900s. PM2.5 is down 40 percent over the past 20 years and 10 percent in the past four years, according to EPA statistics. In 1980, about 80 percent of the nation exceeded the PM2.5 standard now in place. Today, that rate is down to 18 percent.

EPA has two PM2.5 standards–a 24-hour standard for short-term PM2.5 levels and an annual-average standard. Virtually the entire nation–99.6 percent of the monitoring sites–already attains the 24-hour standard, in most cases with plenty of room to spare. Non-attainment is limited almost solely to annual-average PM2.5 levels. Of the few non-attainment locations, 60 percent could reach compliance with PM2.5 reductions of less than 10 percent, and another 23 percent of locations would need 10 to 20 percent reductions.

Health Effects Greatly Overstated

In addition, there is evidence that EPA and activists have greatly exaggerated the health effects of current PM2.5 levels. EPA’s annual PM2.5 standard is based mainly on a 1995 American Cancer Society (ACS) PM study, which reported an association between PM2.5 and mortality. Some features of the study, however, suggest PM is unlikely to be the agent responsible.

According to the ACS results, PM increased mortality for men, but not women, and for those with no more than a high school degree but not for those with at least some college. The ACS study also reported increased mortality among former smokers but not among those who currently smoke or never smoked, and among those who said they were moderately active but not among the very active or the sedentary. Such biologically implausible variations in the ostensible effects of low-level PM suggest the association between PM and mortality is spurious and does not represent a genuine cause-and-effect relationship.

Claims about low-level PM and health suffer from other biological plausibility problems. For example, coal-fired power plants contribute some 25 to 50 percent of the total PM2.5 in the eastern half of the United States, in the form of sulfates formed as a result of SO2 emissions. But toxicology studies with human volunteers suggest sulfates are not toxic, even at exposures many times greater than today’s peak levels, and even in people with respiratory diseases.

Scientists use ammonium sulfate, the main form of sulfate PM in the air in the eastern United States, as an inert control factor–that is, a substance not expected to have any health effects–in studies of the health effects of acidic aerosols, and magnesium sulfate is used therapeutically to reduce airway constriction in asthmatics.

Nitrate PM, which makes up 25 to 50 percent of PM in the western U.S., has been shown to have no deleterious health effects in controlled studies.

EPA attributes about 90 percent of the benefits of all air pollution regulation to lives saved due to PM reductions. But if PM at current levels is not killing people, then almost all of the benefits EPA claims for clean-air regulation are bogus.

Number of Persons Affected Overstated

EPA also has exaggerated the number of people living in areas that violate the PM2.5 standard. Instead of the 100 million reported in news stories, the true figure is more like 45 million.

The overestimate is attributable to two factors. First, EPA included many counties not because their own air quality violated the PM2.5 standard, but because the agency believes they contribute to violations in other counties. That makes sense for regulatory policy, but not as a means of determining PM exposure. Second, counties that monitor PM levels at more than one location sometimes violate the standard in one area but comply in another, yet EPA counts all people in the county as living in areas that violate the standard.

More Bureaucracy on the Way

Despite the weak evidence of harm from current PM2.5 levels, EPA’s PM2.5 non-attainment designations will set in motion a massive Clean Air Act planning and regulation process. Under current law, each non-attainment area must develop and implement a State Implementation Plan (SIP) demonstrating the area will attain federal PM2.5 standards between 2010 and 2015.

Non-attainment areas also will have to prove to EPA that their regional transportation plans are in “conformity” with their SIPs. They will have to convince EPA that, for example, adding more freeway capacity will not cause an increase in emissions above the level permitted by the SIP. A region that fails the conformity test risks losing its federal transportation funds. SIPs and Transportation Conformity also create many opportunities for the inevitable activist lawsuits that have been part and parcel of the Clean Air Act process.

Virtually all of this, moreover, is a matter of process rather than results: Failure to have an approved SIP or to demonstrate conformity on paper carries far worse penalties than actually failing to clean the air. According to EPA rules, only the former can result in loss of highway funds and the imposition of other costly sanctions.

All of this planning is irrelevant to future air quality improvements. The actions necessary to eliminate almost all remaining air pollution in the United States have already been taken through regulations for all types of motor vehicles, for power plants, and for industrial facilities. PM2.5 will continue to decline even if we do nothing new.

The SIP and conformity processes and the plans, working groups, reports, and regulations that flow from them will do little to reduce air pollution. The main effect of the process will be to maintain a large cadre of professional regulators and activists and give them further power to micromanage economic activity and individuals’ personal choices.

EPA may believe designating more than 200 PM2.5 non-attainment areas will improve public health, but all the agency’s action will actually do is unleash a new layer of Clean Air Act bureaucracy.

Joel Schwartz ([email protected]) is a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and author of the forthcoming AEI book, Air Quality in America: A Dose of Reality on Air Pollution Levels, Trends, and Health Risks.