Dirty air numbers game
On April 15, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a list of 474 counties that violate or
contribute to violations of standards for ground-level ozone — smog, by any other name. Roughly 1 in 7 counties in America will be required to redouble their efforts (spend more money) to reduce concentrations of ground level ozone.
The question is, “Should citizens be concerned about living in a ‘dirty air’ area?” Is the air we breathe suddenly getting worse or why are so many counties not measuring up to clean air standards for ozone?
EPA Administrator Mike Leavitt was quick to point out, “This isn’t about the air getting dirtier. The air is getting cleaner. These new rules are about our new understanding of health threats; about our standards getting tougher and our national resolve to meet them.”
Actually, it is about a fatally flawed, but sacrosanct, Clean Air Act leading to a costly redefinition of what constitutes healthful air quality. One does not have to be in favor of dirty air to be critical of this “flagship” of U.S. environmental law. You just have to care about whether environmental policies produce benefits commensurate with their costs.
Indeed, Americans have been paying more to reduce smog levels than it is worth to them for some time. The old standard that was based on a one-hour level of 0.120 parts of ozone per million parts (ppm) of air already cost $4 to produce $1 of health benefits. The new eight-hour standard of 0.80 ppm has been estimated to require on the order of $20 to produce $1 of benefits.
Why on Earth would anyone spend $20 to get $1 worth of benefits? Three decades ago, Congress wrote a high-sounding provision into the original Clean Air Act that says air quality standards must be set at a level that “protects the public health with an adequate margin of safety.” Over the years, this clause has been interpreted to also mean costs cannot be considered when setting these standards.
In 1997 when new standards for ozone were proposed, scientists on the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC) — the group charged with evaluating whether these new standards would meet this objective — warned there was no threshold level for the onset of biological responses due to exposure to ozone. People can experience shortness of breath, wheezing, coughing bouts, etc. when exercising in ozone concentrations that occur without the introduction of man-made chemicals into the air. The Committee warned: “This means that the paradigm of selecting a standard at the lowest-observable-effects-level and then providing an ‘adequate margin of safety’ is no longer possible.”
EPA’s analysis of the ozone health studies estimated that in a population of 1 million, each 100 parts per billion of added ozone might result in one to three additional summertime respiratory hospital admissions per day. This is a large increase in ozone levels and a very small increase in hospital admissions.
Interestingly, an eight-hour standard of 0.090 ppm instead of 0.080 ppm would be roughly equivalent to the old one-hour 0.120 ppm standard. A simple analysis of EPA air quality data for 2000-2002 indicates this change would reduce the number of “dirty air” counties by nearly 80 percent.
Administrator Leavitt is wrong that the new standards “are about our new understanding of health threats” from ozone. They are about Congress’ unwillingness to establish an objective for the Clean Air Act that provides Americans with benefits that are worth the costs.
Kenneth W. Chilton is associate professor of management and director of the Institute for Study of Economics and the Environment at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Mo.