Did you ever think that, if we mandated a five mile per hour speed limit, there probably would no longer be fatal car accidents? I think that would be true, but the American economy would collapse along the way? And I bet that, if we required people to eat only cold food, we wouldn’t have any deadly kitchen fires anymore. Of course, we’d have a lot more food poisoning deaths. And did you ever consider that, if we mandated that industry cannot produce any pollutants at all, many people will live longer? It’s that last consideration that interests me because of an NPR story I heard today:
Internal government documents obtained by NPR indicate that the Environmental Protection Agency could have saved thousands of lives each year if it set a stricter standard for soot in the air we breathe.
Last month, when EPA administrator Steven Johnson set a new standard for how much soot is safe to breathe, he rejected EPA’s scientific advisors recommendation to make it tougher. A draft EPA analysis shows that if he had taken their advice, the stricter standard would have saved about twice as many lives each year.
John Walke from the environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council says the documents show how deadly Johnson’s decision will be for Americans.
“What these explosive charts reveal is that by refusing to strengthen our air quality protections,” Walke said, “EPA’s political boss sacrificed the lives of five to 10,000 Americans each year, who will now die from air pollution related strokes and heart and lung disease.”
Walke provided the documents to NPR. A Bush administration official confirmed their authenticity.
The documents show estimates of how many lives would be saved by the new soot standard — and how many more would have been saved by the stricter standard recommended by the science advisors.
In estimates from 12 scientists who had been hand=picked by the EPA, all agreed that more lives would be saved if the EPA had chosen a stricter standard. Most of them put that number at more than 4,000.
Four to five thousand lives is a big number. (Although, to put it in perspective, 5,000 is at most .002% of the American population.) What this breathless story (sorry about that pun) doesn’t discuss is whether more stringent emission standards would result in significant damage to the U.S. economy. Perhaps the increased cost of doing business would result in industires vanishing, leaving more people without jobs or health insurance. These people, too, would be subject to death from stress or the inability to get medical care. The story is silent on this point because there isn’t any such information:
In most cases, the EPA releases analysis of the costs and benefits of a new standard when it announces changes. But in this case, that still has not happened.
EPA officials declined to speak on the record. In a statement, EPA press secretary Jennifer Wood did not comment on the internal documents. She said that the soot standard is the most protective in history. And she said EPA officials still are working on an analysis of the risks and benefits of the new standard.
So what we really have right now isn’t a story at all. It’s lots of accusations, without rounded, accurate information.
One can certainly fault the EPA for setting itself up for this type of attack: Why the heck didn’t it have available information explaining how the administrator decided to beef up the standards to a point stronger than they’ve ever been, but to stop short of the scientific panel’s recommendations? The answer to this question could be that the administrator is in the thrall of big business, and did the bare minimum he could get away with.
It could also be, though, that the scientists got carried away with the perfect, and forgot about the good. That’s why I started my post reminding us that even safety has to be balanced against other practical concerns. At it is, we really don’t know. It’s therefore pretty darn irresponsible for NPR to run with a story blaming the EPA for killing thousands of Americans annually. This is especially true when the EPA is actually strengthening existing anti-pollution standards — just not enough to please the Natural Resources Defense Council. (And, when all the facts are out, maybe not enough to please us either.)
UPDATE: With Earl’s help, I corrected a math error, changing 1.7% to .002%. Thanks, Earl!