Commentary

Smog Proposal Promises a Legacy of High Costs and Lost Lives

By Kay H. Jones and Michael Gough
This article originally appeared in the Detroit News.

“Sloppy” is too kind a word for the analyses that underlie the Environmental Protection Agency’s new regulations for particulate matter — 2.5 micron airborne particles of dust roughly 30 times smaller than the width of a human hair. The expected impact of the regulations can only be described as “life-threatening.” In November, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) claimed that its proposed regulations would prevent 40,000 air-pollution-associated deaths annually. The agency later retreated, lowering their figure to 20,000. Now the agency says the number should be 15,000. Their estimate is still vastly overstated.

The EPA’s gaffe would have embarrassed a first-year science student. The agency confused the median and mean of measured particulate matter concentrations. Based on that mistake, the EPA set 15 micrograms of particulate matter per cubic meter of air as its regulatory target. In correcting its mistake, the EPA acknowledges that the target should be higher.

In a recent report released by Citizens for a Sound Economy Foundation, we calculated that correct number is about 19 micrograms. Knowing that, the way to calculate the benefits from the proposed regulations is to examine the number of people currently exposed to particulate matter levels of 19 micrograms and greater and multiply that number by the EPA’s estimates of the increased mortality rate faced by those people. Currently, 10 U.S. urban areas with a total population of 20 million people have particulate matter levels greater than 18.75 micrograms. If the EPA’s estimate of increased mortality from those exposures is correct, its particulate matter regulation would save 840 deaths a year.


[Regulatory] burdens reduce disposable income, and mortality rates go up as disposable income goes down. Put simply, “wealthier is healthier.”


In fact, the risk is likely lower. No biologically plausible mechanism exists to explain how particulate matter, at current concentrations, contributes to mortality. In the absence of any information about possible toxic mechanisms, the EPA relies upon a statistical inference that includes not a single measurement of an individual’s particulate matter exposure. It is conceivable that the risk is zero at current exposures, and it is certain that particulate matter levels will continue to fall — as they have been for years — because of the modernization of American industry.

Few if any benefits can be expected from the proposed regulation.

In contrast, the costs are high, especially when the costs are measured in lives. Many economists have pioneered analyses that demonstrate regulatory costs include deaths. Individuals bear the costs of regulations through higher taxes and higher costs. Those burdens reduce disposable income, and mortality rates go up as disposable income goes down. Put simply, “wealthier is healthier.”

The EPA estimates that its regulation would cost $7.5 billion annually, and Keeney and Kenneth Green of the Reason Public Policy Institute have calculated that 1,650 regulation-“induced fatalities” would be the result. The greatest impact would be on less wealthy people. They calculate 940 deaths among those earning less than $15,000 annually, 540 among those earning $15,000-$35,000 and 170 among those earning more than $35,000.

Economist Anne E. Smith of Decision Focus, a California consulting firm, disagrees with the EPA’s cost estimate (as do many other individuals and organizations). She calculates the costs would be between $90 billion and $150 billion. Those costs translate into 27,000 induced fatalities each year, with the majority of deaths occurring among the less wealthy.

The lowest estimate of the number of induced fatalities to be expected from the particulate matter regulation — 1,640 — is just about double the number of lives, 840, that would be “saved” by the regulation. As the costs go higher, the discrepancy will widen. In the absence of any biologically plausible explanation for an association between particulate matter and mortality, the estimated number of lives saved must be viewed with skepticism.

Mary Nichols, the EPA assistant administrator for air and radiation, told Chemical and Engineering News that the proposed regulations show “we care.” What’s caring about wasteful spending that costs lives? Made aware of the tiny benefits and huge costs of their proposed regulation, Nichols and her EPA colleagues should question their march toward regulations. They probably won’t.

Either Congress forces that question, or we face a future with high costs and regulation-caused deaths.

Kay Jones heads Zephyr Consulting, a Seattle-based environmental consulting firm and is an adjunct scholar for the Citizens for a Sound Economy Foundation and the Cato Institute. Michael Gough is director of science and risk studies at the Cato Institute.