EPA’s ‘Dirty Little Secrets’ on Clean Air Revealed

Published October 1, 1997

With EPA’s new standards for particulate matter (PM) and ground-level ozone still facing Congressional and legal challenges, the debate over how the agency developed and justified its latest regulatory initiative continues.

The new standards represent the greatest expansion of EPA’s regulatory power in the agency’s stormy 27-year history. EPA Administrator Carol Browner’s initiative opened up fissures between Congressional Democrats and the White House and alienated big-city mayors and organized labor–two key Democratic constituencies. At the center of the controversy has stood one over-arching question: Does the available scientific evidence justify the enormous burdens the standards will place on communities across the nation?

H. Sterling Burnett of the Dallas-based National Center for Policy Analysis has evaluated EPA’s arguments in support of the standards, concluding that the agency has been less than forthcoming to the public about what will be accomplished by its new standards. Burnett calls these EPA’s “dirty little secrets:

Dirty Little Secret #1: Ozone isn’t affecting asthmatic children. EPA and allied environmental groups, many of which regularly receive funding from the agency, argue that tighter ozone standards are needed because the asthma rate in the U.S. has gone up as a result of declining air quality. Yet, as Burnett notes, while asthma has been rising, ground-level ozone rates have fallen dramatically over the last twenty years.

It turns out that EPA is looking for asthma in all the wrong places. Comprehensive studies by the European Federation of Asthma and Allergy Associations and the (U.S.) National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) conclude that asthma is triggered by indoor pollution. Indeed, the NIAID puts its finger on cockroach droppings as the leading cause of asthma.

Dirty Little Secret #2: EPA scientists do not support the new standards. Even members of EPA’s own Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC) disagree on the need for tighter standards. Although EPA Administrator Browner has said repeatedly that the science “told” EPA to take action, CASAC was split on what, if any, action to take. Eight CASAC members thought no new standards should be set because there is no clear evidence such standards would yield tangible health benefits. The remaining 13 members of the panel were split over whether current standards are too strict, not strict enough, or just about right.

Dirty Little Secret #3: Scientists cannot review the data. Americans may never know whether the tighter standards will benefit public health, since two Harvard researchers who conducted the primary studies EPA used to justify its action refused to release their data to Congress or even EPA. The studies were paid for by taxpayers.

Dirty Little Secret #4: New standards may not save lives. EPA has revised several times its estimate of the number of premature deaths would be averted by adoption of its new PM standard. At one point, a scientist reviewing EPA data discovered that the agency had inexplicably confused “mean” with “median,” which forced it to lower by 25 percent its estimate of hypothetical lives saved by its standards.

Dirty Little Secret #5: New standards could actually cost lives. Burnett points out that ground-level ozone has health benefits that EPA ignored: It screens out potentially deadly ultraviolet radiation. According to a Department of Energy study of the new standards, the required ozone reduction would increase malignant skin cancers, causing 25 to 50 new deaths a year; cause as many as 260 new cases of cutaneous melanoma and 11,000 new cases of non-melanoma skin cancer; and cause between 13,000 and 28,000 new incidences of cataracts each year.

PolicyFax: For more information on the health effects of EPA’s proposed air quality standards, call PolicyFax at 847/202-4888 and request document #2303435 “The EPA’s Exaggeration of the Health Risk from PM2.5,” published in 1997 by Citizens for a Sound Economy (5 pages) and #2303436 “Has the Case Been Made for New Air Quality Standards?” published in 1997 by the Center for the Study of American Business (14 pages).