New air standards a poor bargain for Americans.
If the new standards are issued, local communities would pay the multi-billion dollar tab. Businesses would pay more. Consumers would pay more. And local and state governments would struggle to find money to implement the new standards.
Everyone wants clean air, and it is getting cleaner under current air quality standards -- thanks to the consider able investments and sacrifices of people in hundreds of communities across the nation. It's unfair to ask them to pay billions more for more stringent standards when the potential benefits are so questionable.
Health benefits of new standards are
The scientific evidence linking ozone and fine particles to death and serious illness affecting millions of Americans is weak or ambiguous. At high enough concentrations, air pollution is dangerous. But air quality that meets current federal standards is safe. As a result, new, more stringent standards would do little to improve health.
Ozone. Laboratory research shows that most people aren't sensitive to ozone at levels currently allowed by EPA, and those who are rarely experience anything but mild, temporary reactions (a spell of coughing, for example).
After reviewing a number of more stringent ozone standards similar to those in EPA's proposal, including one approximately as stringent as the current standard, EPA's own Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC) concluded that none is "significantly more protective of public health" than any of the others. Indeed, CASAC noted that it is not possible to set a standard that would eliminate all biological responses to ozone because some people react to ozone even at the background levels caused by emissions from trees and other natural sources.
Fine particles. The scientific community is still not sure what, if any, impact fine particles have on health at current levels of exposure. Some epidemiological studies have shown what scientists call a "statistical association" between higher levels of particles and serious health problems, but many have not. Other potential causes of the problems (climate, personal habits or other air pollutants, for example) have not been adequately ruled out. Indeed, researchers in one study, which took weather conditions into account, reached totally different conclusions about the health impacts of particles than other researchers looking at the same data for the same city.
Also, of the N epidemiological studies relied on by EPA to justify a new standard, only two actually studied fine particles because important data about them were lacking. All the other studies were based on particles as much as 4,000 times larger than the fine particles EPA thinks need further control.
Finally, experimental chamber studies of asthmatics exposed to high concentrations of fine particles do not support the contention they are dangerous.
In light of this evidence, CASAC concluded that there are "many unaswered questions and uncertainties" about the connection between fine particles and premature deaths. The committee called for a targeted research program to resolve these uncertainties.
Asthma. EPA often suggests that the new standards would be particularly helpful to those who suffer from asthma, but the truth is different. While asthma problems have been increasing, air pollution is unlikely to be the cause because it has been decreasing. (EPA says total emissions have declined by almost 30 percent over the past 25 years.) According to a 1993 article in the Annual Review of Public Health -- cited by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in its analysis of asthma deaths earlier this year -- "no evidence exists that supports the role of outdoor pollution levels as the primary factor driving the changes in the epidemiologic patterns of asthma morbidity." Other studies cited by the CDC attribute the worsening asthma problem primarily to indoor air pollution, cigarette smoke, indoor allergens and poor prenatal care.
While air pollution doesn't cause asthma and isn't responsible for the recent increase in problems, it may aggravate the condition for some. However, it would be untrue to suggest that EPA's proposal would significantly improve their health. The research shows that any benefits from the new standards would be minor. In New York City, for example -- a city with one of the mote serious air pollution problems -- EPA itself has estimated that its proposed standards would reduce asthma-related hospital admissions by only six-tenths of one percent.
EPA grossly underestimates costs
EPA says the costs of its proposals would be reasonable -- from $6.5 billion to $8.5 billion each year. However, the fine print accompanying these estimates reveals that many areas would not be able to meet the new standards even after such an investment. EPA stopped figuring at this point because its own calculations showed costs beginning to rise exponentially, indicating that full compliance with the stricter standards would be enormously expensive, if feasible at all. Indeed, an analysis by EPA's own consultants estimated the cost of a new fine particle standard for the Northeast and Midwest at almost $20 billion per year, with some localities in those areas still unable to comply.
The impacts of the new standards would be pervasive:
* They would immediately throw many areas of the country into non-attainment, status. About one in four counties would be out of compliance with the new standards -- or about 800 nationally. That's over three times the number currently out of attainment.
* State and local government would be presented with an unfunded mandate to invest more in air quality monitoring -- and face higher administrative costs, incurred in part by having to totally revise the federally required "implementation" plans for attaining the new standards that must be approved by EPA. States unable to devise and implement a plan acceptable to EPA could face cutoff of some federal funds.
* A whole new regimen of pollution controls would be imposed, costing billions of dollars annually. Plants, factories, refineries and utilities would have to reduce emissions. Even small businesses like restaurants, bakeries and dry cleaners would have to cut emission -- at a potential cost of thousands of dollars per establishment. A recent study estimated that a new, more stringent ozone standard would cost the city of Chicago alone from $2.5 billion to $7.0 billion annually.
* The large cuts in emissions needed to meet the new standards would restrict business expansion in many areas, reducing creation of new jobs and restricting growth of the tax base. Higher costs could force some businesses to close.
* Consumers would suffer inconvenience and higher prices. They would pay more for cars, gasoline, electricity and virtually all products shipped to market. They could face mandatory driving restrictions and carpool rules. More would have to get their cars inspected and be forced to pay steep repair bills. Also, use of woodstoves, boats, and outdoor power equipment could be limited.
* APA does say that new technology, flexibility and market solutions would reduce future costs. But the agency fails to explain how this would happen, by how much costs would be reduced, or why the costs of controlling air pollution have steadily risen over the past decades despite technological advances.
Because of the Clean Air Act, air quality continues to improve without new standards. If scientists reach consensus that tighter standards would produce public health improvements, then the public, the business community, state and local government, and others will work together to find ways to meet them. However, today, that is far from clear. A stringent fine particle standard may prove unwarranted and a waste of money. We won't know until more research has been conducted. As for ozone, the weight of the evidence already shows that a stricter standard is ill-advised and would not be in the public's interest.
Paul Bailey is with the Air Quality Standards Coalition.
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|Title Annotation:||Clean Air Standards: Two Perspectives|
|Publication:||Nation's Cities Weekly|
|Date:||Feb 3, 1997|
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