MILLOY: EPA’s air-quality overkill

Costly new air-quality standards are based on suspect statistics

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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.

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