Last week, you may have noticed that the House passed a flurry of bills slamming the EPA. Why does the House hate science and nature so hard? I’ll give you my take on what’s going on here.
As far as I can tell, this all begins with air quality standards set by the EPA. The Clean Air Act requires the EPA to set National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for pollutants that affect public health. One of those pollutants is ground-level ozone (smog), which presents a number of public health issues, including decreased lung function, severe respiratory problems, heart attacks, asthma attacks, and, I want to emphasize this, death.
The Scientific Advisory Board reviews available scientific data in order to recommend a standard for air quality– the threshold of ozone that produces the optimal number of deaths per year. The optimal number of deaths isn’t zero, of course. Consider that most people whose deaths are related to ozone are particularly susceptible–the old and infirm, the young and infirm, those with other respiratory insufficiencies, etc. But when you begin adding deaths of otherwise not-so-unhealthy people, that’s when public health officials frown. So, you have to find that sweet spot where mostly healthy people can hack it.
In 2001, the Supreme Court ruled that when the EPA sets the standards for ozone, it must not take into consideration how much it might cost to implement the standard. It must only look at what protects the public health. The limit they’ve been recommending is between 60-70 ppb. In 2008, the Bush administration went with 75 ppb, despite the EPA recommendation. In 2010, the EPA said, in a slightly louder voice, that 60-70 ppb would be better, health-wise, and maybe the lower end of that. Congress sneered, and the Obama administration caved. But the EPA has been under court order to settle on the standards, so on Nov. 25, they rolled out a slightly more relaxed limit of 65-70 ppb.
What causes all the hand-wringing is that, should this be enacted, many metropolitan areas would immediately be out of compliance. When an area is considered to be out of compliance, more strenuous guidelines are put into place for new manufacturing projects, and sometimes industry has to pay to offset its pollution. So, the new rule would immediately cost a bunch of money… but remember: the EPA can’t consider that when it sets the standards.
So if you can’t get the EPA to change the standards recommendation because of what the science says, you have to go after the science. Why is 60-70 ppb a good number, and not 75? One of the foundational studies used by the EPA to get this number is a landmark study, Bell et al. (2004). That study shows that between 1987 and 2000, we’ve averaged 20 deaths per day per city due to ozone. For every increase last week of 10 parts per billion of ozone, daily mortality rates due to ozone this week go up .52%. Just a little jump of 5 ppb doesn’t seem like much until you measure it in deaths.
If I wanted to look into the Bell study, I’d need to look at patient mortality information. That’s based on health records, which are confidential. I’d have to be content with the anonymized, compiled data. But the Bell study was funded by the EPA. So, if I’m a Congressperson, tasked with accepting or rejecting the EPA recommendation, should I be able to look at the confidential data in order to check out the study? That’s the sticky bit.
And what if I’m one of the scientists who co-authored the Bell study? Arguably, that would make me a really good person to ask about air quality and mortality. But if I’m on the Science Advisory Board, and I got a grant from the EPA to do this study, and I co-authored the study, is it a conflict of interest for me to help recommend air quality standards to the EPA?
I would say of course not. Public health research requires public grants, and scientists who know what they’re talking about are the people who did these studies. However, to Republicans, this looks like “stacking the deck” with EPA cronies. And matters are not helped at all when the SAB won’t turn over the health records upon which the studies are based. I understand why they’re not turning them over, but you can see why the policymakers are frustrated.
This is not to say that they’re right. They do not care about the public health aspect of this, make no mistake about it. They’re worried about the cost, and nothing else.