- The Washington Times - Monday, March 25, 2002

The Environmental Protection Agency is not keeping Administrator Christie Whitman's commitment to issue regulations based on the best possible science. It is reissuing Administrator Carol Browner's monumental 1997 national air quality standards for ozone based on scientific judgments that are incompatible with its own technical analyses and in violation of procedures to safeguard scientific judgment.
EPA's disdain for careful science is not new in 1999, a federal court blocked the 1997 ozone standards because they embodied essentially the same mistakes. But its actions illustrate vividly the persistent primacy of politics at EPA.
To show that careful science matters at EPA, Mrs. Whitman will have to apply sound scientific procedures and methods even to politically unpopular problems, like estimating the health benefits of ozone, the problem underlying the 1999 court decision.
EPA should acknowledge for the first time a draft report it prepared in 1997 estimating that its ozone standards would cause 696 skin cancers per year. (EPA has never made public that report, which is buried in a docket at the Office of Management and Budget.)
In accordance with its own procedures and in compliance with the Clean Air Act, EPA should ask its Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee to review the scientific evidence of the benefits of ground level ozone. More generally, EPA should assess these benefits in the same detailed and systematic way it assesses the respiratory health benefits of more stringent standards.
In developing its 1997 air quality standards for ozone, EPA wrongly failed to consider all identifiable effects of ozone including beneficial ones. This error prompted the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit to block the standards in May 1999. After purportedly considering the health benefits of ozone, EPA responded to the court last November by reproposing the 1997 ozone standards. EPA now is writing a final regulation.
EPA's recent proposed response to the court concludes that ozone benefits are too uncertain and too small to merit any modification to Mrs. Browner's 1997 decision. Ozone near the ground, like ozone high in the stratosphere, reduces exposure to solar radiation, which causes skin cancers and cataracts.
EPA's proposed response does not mention a draft EPA risk assessment given to the Office of Management and Budget in 1997 that estimated that 696 non-melanoma skin cancers per year would result from adoption of its ozone control standard. This assessment, which claims to be based on "well-established methods," has deficiencies that must be remedied, but it nevertheless permits rough estimates of other known health benefits of ozone. If these estimates have the same ratios to non-melanoma skin cancers as reported in an earlier government study, the total annual number of additional melanoma cases, melanoma fatalities, and cataracts would range between 10, 3, and 1,800 respectively and 46, 9, and 4,600.
Setting a standard to protect public health when a pollutant has both beneficial and harmful effects is obviously tricky. The best approach, minimizing the net adverse health effects of ozone, requires an aggregate measure of different health effects, both good and bad. In the absence of such a measure, one can note only that EPA estimated that in major cities its standard would prevent tens of thousands of cases of temporary chest pain on deep inspiration, hundreds of thousands of temporary exposures of concern, and dozens of projected hospitalizations each year.
But the temporary nature of many of these respiratory health effects contrasts with the serious and lasting effects of some skin cancers and cataracts. Thus, EPA's conclusion that the health benefits of ozone are essentially negligible is incompatible with its own analyses.
In developing its proposed response to the court, EPA also ignored procedural safeguards intended to protect the quality of its scientific judgments.
It did not seek any advice from its Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, although both the Clean Air Act and EPA's practices call for this committee to advise EPA.
EPA's criteria document fails to mention the health benefits of ozone. Yet the act requires that EPA's criteria "accurately reflect the latest scientific knowledge useful in indicating the kind and extent of all identifiable effects." The appeals court also ruled that EPA must consider ozone benefits "in formulating air quality criteria".
Getting EPA to assess carefully the benefits of ozone is tough because the mere existence of such benefits is heretical to the environmentalist high priesthood. Enviros view a careful assessment of the benefits of pollution as akin to asking Satan how many Christmas presents he has given to the needy.
A careful assessment of the benefits of ozone would go a long way toward restoring the credibility of EPA's risk assessments within the scientific community. It might also help to persuade the public that EPA's proposed regulation for ozone would, on balance, protect the public's health.

Randall Lutter is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute-Brookings Joint Center for Regulatory Studies.

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