EPA’s air-quality overkill

By Steve Milloy
July 29, 2011, Washington Times

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is set to kill more jobs with another make-believe air-pollution scare. Although congressional Republicans and businesses oppose the coming rules tightening ground-level ozone standards, they once again have opted to fight the agency with both arms tied behind their backs.

The high costs of compliance and job losses were the main arguments against the Clinton administration’s needless 1997 tightening of the ozone standard from 120 parts per billion (ppb) to 84 ppb. The same arguments were made again in 2008, when the George W. Bush administration needlessly ratcheted the standard down to 75 ppb.

In January 2010, the Obama administration proposed to tighten the standards to between 60 and 70 ppb. Although the EPA is expected to miss its self-imposed deadline of July 29 for issuing the rule, the agency said it will be issued “soon.” The agency no doubt is counting on opponents to continue making their same losing arguments.

Industry says the rule may be the most expensive in history, costing as much as $1 trillion annually and more than 7 million jobs by 2020, according to Manufacturers Alliance/MAPI economist Donald Norman.

While such cost estimates would seem to be extraordinarily compelling reasons for the EPA to reconsider its plans, such consideration is essentially illegal. Technically speaking, the Clean Air Act requires that the standards be based on health considerations only; it bars the consideration of costs.

Toward that point, President Obama’s EPA administrator, Lisa P. Jackson, claims the Bush ozone standard is “not legally defensible” because the Bush EPA relied on costs as a rationale not to tighten the standard below 75 ppb.

All is not lost, however, if Republicans and industry would dare to challenge the EPA ozone standards on the basis of health.

Because there is no evidence that typical ambient ozone levels have affected actual public health, the EPA resorts to dubious laboratory tests to provide a rationale for its claim that there is no safe threshold of exposure to ozone.

In a typical laboratory test, researchers will expose a small group of human subjects to, say, 60 ppb ozone in a closed chamber for a period of 6.6 hours. The subjects will exercise for 50 minutes every hour, alternating between cycling and running. At the end of the 6.6 hours, of which 83 percent was spent exercising, the researchers will compare pre-chamber breathing with post-chamber breathing.

Even more incredible than the notion that ambient air standards would be based on changes in breathing after 5.5 hours of exercise in an ozone chamber is the fact that ozone doesn’t appear to have any significant effects on breathing.

A recent study by EPA researchers touted by the media said, “Healthy young adults can suffer lung damage at the lowest level of ozone pollution being studied.” The above-described exposure to 60 ppb produced declines in forced-vital-capacity and forced-expiratory-volume-at-one-second on the order of 1 percent to 2 percent more than exercise in zero ppb ozone.

Not only is this 1 percent to 2 percent change a long way from clinically significant declines in respiratory function, which start at about 15 to 20 percent, but respiratory measurement isn’t sufficiently reliable to detect such small differences.

In the above-described experiment, the margin of error among male subjects was large enough that the 60 ppb ozone exposure actually could have improved their breathing. While this is not likely to be the case, the reliability of simply asking subjects to blow as hard as they can into a tube is open to question.

Next, the comparison or “control” ozone exposure of zero ppb is faulty because it is not one that occurs in nature. Natural emissions of ozone-forming pollutants from vegetation, lightning and occasional transport of ozone to ground level from the stratosphere all contribute to background ozone levels as high as 50 ppb.

Finally, there is the reality that outdoor ozone monitors overmeasure individual inhalation of ozone by as much as 65 percent because of their elevated placement and the realities of ozone deposition. So 60 ppb of ozone in a chamber may equate to as much as 100 ppb of ozone as measured by outdoor monitors, which are used to measure regulatory compliance.

Ironically then, the 60 ppb ozone chamber experiment more probably indicates that 5.5 hours of exercise in outdoor air with 100 ppb ozone – 33 percent higher than the existing Bush standard and 40 percent to 60 percent higher than the coming Obama standard – causes no clinically significant or even measurable respiratory effects.

At some point, Congress ought to look at fixing the Clean Air Act so that actual costs can be weighed with projected benefits. In the meantime, ample reason exists to challenge the bogus health claims behind the Obama standards.

Steve Milloy is the publisher of JunkScience.com and the author of “Green Hell: How Environmentalists Plan to Control Your Life and What You Can Do to Stop Them” (Regnery, 2009).

10 thoughts on “EPA’s air-quality overkill”

  1. Sam Parry,

    You claim that the science is against Milloy when he claims that there are no bodies and that you are correct when you claim that there are. I reviewed the articles that you linked as examples of your science and found them seriously wanting. The first article was a good example of all of them; the authors found a 26% increase in the odds ratio among some 8,000 subjects who may or may not have been exposed to the concentration of fine particles measured in a central city location. In some cities exposure to the fine particles reduced the risk of death. There was no throrough examination of possible other confounding factors, save smoking.

    I find it appalling that you believe that this junk is science and that we should expend hundreds of billions of dollars to reduce the concentration of fine particles on the basis o of what amounts to innuendo. Bradford Hill found an increase of 1,000% of lung cancer among smokers. This tripe does not come close.

  2. Larry in Texas — Very thorough comment. Just a few points in response:

    1) First of all, do you have a link to a source for your 55 ppb natural ozone level? I’d love to review it. I’m not saying you’re wrong, it’s just that with a current limit set during the Bush administration of 75 ppb, a natural noise of 55 ppb would be about 3/4 of the total current limit.

    2) You say that the clean air problem was already on its way to being solved prior to the 1970 Clean Air Act (and well before the 1990 Clean Air Act) thanks to the technologies that were already being deployed. So, what’s the problem with the clean air standards? If, as you claim, technology was already solving the air pollution problem, why object to standards that would merely lock in the pollution limits already achieved by technology? For that matter, why would polluting industries spend one red cent opposing standards they were already about to meet? That certainly wouldn’t be a great use of investor dollars.

    3) Respectfully, you can’t seriously be blaming the overall rise in prices on products and services on clean air standards, can you? Especially, if as you claim, technologies already existed to deal with the air pollution problem, why would there be any additional cost to the economy in implementing technologies that were already being implemented? Finally, do you have any source for this claim? I gave you two sources: EPA and Cato, which said the total implementation costs were somewhere between $65 billion and $104 billion.

    4) You say I have no evidence that reducing ozone to 60 ppb would produce any health benefits. Actually, while you may not believe these studies, here is a statement from the American Thoracic Society citing several public health studies that indeed show a clear public health benefit of 580 – 2,660 premature deaths prevented every year: http://www.thoracic.org/newsroom/press-releases/resources/late-breaking-abstract-pdf/ozone-reduction-in-us.pdf. You might say that’s not worth the cost or that you doubt these studies. But, you cannot say that those supporting tighter standards don’t have any evidence supporting our position.

    Bottom line remains unchanged. Steve Milloy says air pollution doesn’t kill anyone. He’s wrong. The science is overwhelmingly against him and anyone who makes such an unsubstantiated claim.

  3. Sam Parry –

    I read the last proposed EPA regulations implemented between 2006 and 2008 when I was an Assistant City Attorney in Dallas, Texas. EPA, in their comments, as much as admitted that background levels of ozone at that time were 55 ppb! This is because plants (yes, old darling, plants) produce a great deal of volatile organic compounds that are a key factor in the production of surface ozone. Further, your response about 1970 when the Clean Air Act was enacted is spurious and not based on the facts. While the Clean Air Act provided some benefits, developing industrial technology had (as Indur Goklany has demonstrated) already resulted in a marked improvement in air quality from 1920 – 1965, and the technology that was subsequently developed (and would have continued to be developed, because it was economically beneficial to do so) after 1970 was more than likely to produce the same overall result as we see today from government intervention and regulation. This is not a question of high air quality standards; it is a question of what is real and what is not. Texas has struggled for over 25 years in just trying to meet the old 85 ppb standard (which has taken a lot of creative accounting allowed by EPA to meet, by the way); and not all of that ozone is the result of auto emissions generated in Texas, either.

    Costs? There have been massive costs to the economy. One only has to look at the prices of goods and services since 1970 to see that. Benefits from the new standard? We have gradually seen over time that EPA is only interested in stretching the regulatory envelope, in increasing the power equation by tightening standards without regard to whether they are actually achievable, and without concern as to what it will cost compared to the actual benefit of tightening the standard. Don’t give me this crap about “public health,” either. You have no evidence of any substantive public health benefits to be gained by lowering ozone to 60 ppb, because there is no real evidence, notwithstanding all of the so-called “studies” you try to cite (which are mostly exercises in propaganda rather than true science).

    I’ve known and worked with a lot of engineers in my time. Their favorite saying is: we can solve any problem for the right amount of money. The only question is, as always, whether the problem is worth solving, and whether solving it is worth spending an enormous amount of money. I bet you go get your HDTV fixed for hundreds of dollars more than it would cost you to buy a new TV. Because that is what your argument sounds like.

  4. Sam Parry

    I would maintain that the $300 billion per year that you cite is the ongoing cost of the excessive regulation loaded onto American commerce by EPA for what are primarily religious reasons (placate the Earth goddess Gaia) is wasted money. Nearly everything that EPA has done for the past 15 to 20 years has offered no benefit to the health of American citizens. EPA has gone so far in exaggerating the risks associated with relatively minor exposures to substances that are, at the doses we receive totally innocuous, that they have made a farce of any pretense that their procedures are scientific.

    The risks that EPA claims are imaginary, they do not exist in the real world. Therefore, the benefits that EPA claims for having reduced those trivial exposures are also imaginary, they exist only in the neurons of EPA activists. That leads to the inescapable conclusion that any cost of compliance with the latest EPA regulations is wasted time, energy and resources, all of which could be put to better use in productive activity.

    I realize that Keynes said that anything that gets money circulating, building pyramids for example, produces economic activity that jump starts a moribund economy. However, history, American history in particular, has proven that Keynes was wrong. Your claim that the expense of compliance with irrational regulations is productive economic activity is plain disingenuous.

  5. Many industries have pollution credits that can be bought and sold in an exchange, much like stocks trade. I agree that we need to have high air quality standards, but I think letting industry police itself within EPA guidelines is an intelligent way to do that.

  6. Snorbert — I am pretty sure I DID NOT say there weren’t ANY costs associated with clean air protections. Estimates range from $65 billion per year (according to the EPA) to $104 billion per year (according to the libertarian, anti-government Cato Institute). Even if you assume the higher $104 billion Cato number, that is only about 1/3 the amount of the $300 billion per year environmental technology industry that has grown since the passage of the Clean Air Act. So, even if you completely ignore the health benefits of cleaning up our air pollution, which are substantial, the overall U.S. economy has seen broad overall economic benefit from tough air emission standards.

    The main point is that every time America has confronted new pollution standards, the polluters spend millions of dollars warning America that this will doom the U.S. economy and kill jobs. The plain evidence over the years has been just the opposite.

  7. Bob — That is precisely the point of this debate. You and others on this site deny that there are any real benefits of tightening air pollution standards to clean the air of more fine particulates, smog, soot, etc. The problem you and other skeptics have is that there are scores of studies from across the country and around the world that disagree and have shown that current air pollution levels do cause tens of thousands of premature deaths every year.

    The burden you and other skeptics have is to read through these studies and find specific problems with the data and methodology. If you think all these scientists and public health experts are full of it, you have every opportunity to review the data and publish your own report on what specifically is wrong. That is the scientific method, and I encourage you and others to get in the arena and get to work to show what specifically is wrong. Otherwise, you’re just being an armchair quarterback.

  8. Sam Parry,

    You cannot be serious. You cannot possibly believe that no cost accrued from passage and enforcement of the CAA and the 1990 CAAA. Taking the latter for example, how many Title V permit applications resulted, how much did preparation of each cost the facility owners and how much did it cost taxpayers when EPA hired contractors to review all of those applications. Answer: it was several hundred tons of money. And none of those expenditures did anything to improve the health of any American citizen. It was all wasted money that could have been better spent finding a cure for cancer, or reinvested in productive enterprises that could have further improved the lot of our citizens.

    The fact that neither you nor anyone else did the cost accounting exercise does not prove that the costs did not exist. I know that they did. I helped waste the money. We all are poorer for having done so.

  9. There was demonstrable damage to individuals back in the 1970’s. There is none today. Natural production of pollutants was only a tiny fraction of what was being breathed. Today the natural levels are greater than the portions generated by human activity.

    All that tightening ozone levels will accomplish is raising the barrier to entering established energy markets which makes utilities very happy.

  10. As posted in the comment section on Washington Times:

    Congratulations, Steve Milloy. You managed to get the words “kill” and “jobs” into this column in the first 10 words. You’re not messing around, are you?

    More of the same anti-health standards BS. In your column last week, you denied that air pollution poses any kind of a public health threat or leads to any premature deaths — blatantly ignoring the scores of public health studies on this issue over the last four decades. Sure, there are no death certificates with “Air Pollution” on them. But there also aren’t any death certificates with “Eating a Cheeseburger” on them — and we certainly aren’t denying a connection between eating fatty food and heart disease, are we?

    But, I digress. If you belive the $1 trillion cost and 7 million jobs lost projections, you’re off your rocker. This would be about the same number of jobs lost during the entire 2007-2009 recession and it would be a bigger blow to the U.S. economy than the financial melt-down. In other words, it’s absurd.

    But, making bombastic and ridiculous cost estimates is exactly what we have come to expect from the polluters when it comes to protecting Americans from dangerous air emissions. They did the exact same thing after the passage of the 1970 Clean Air Act. They did the exact same thing after the 1990 Clean Air Act. And guess what: The world did not end, markets adjusted, innovation thrived, utilities continued to profit hand over fist, and every American now breathes safer, cleaner air. That is exactly what will happen again when we tighten ozone standards.

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