The Magazine


Jun 21, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 38 • By CHRISTOPHER DEMUTH SR. and RANDALL LUTTER
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As is well known, ozone far above the earth plays an important role in protecting people from exposure to the sun's ultraviolet radiation (UV), which causes skin cancers, cataracts, and other ills. That is why the United States and other nations have, at substantial cost, banned substances that contribute to ozone depletion. But recent research -- including an article by one of us, Randall Lutter, and Christopher Wolz published in Environmental Science & Technology -- demonstrates that ozone near the ground, where EPA's air-quality standards have their effect, provides additional, independent protection against solar UV radiation. Lutter and Wolz, whose work the court cited, showed that the health benefits of that protection are as well understood as the respiratory problems caused by ozone. Moreover, EPA's ozone standard could increase UV-related health problems by more than it reduced respiratory health problems.

Prompted by this and other research, EPA conducted its own study, which went beyond the earlier work and took a stab at quantifying the UV-related harm likely to result from the new ozone standard. The study noted that the methods for estimating changes in UV exposure and the resulting incidence of skin cancer associated with various ozone levels are "well established." Using these methods, the study projected that lowering the ozone standard would cause an additional 700 nonmelanoma skin cancers each year. Regrettably, EPA did not pursue the matter, on grounds that it could not adequately quantify the health effects; its study is absent from the record submitted to the circuit court.

How do those ill effects compare with the respiratory benefits of a lower ozone standard? EPA and other regulatory agencies have well-developed procedures for placing a monetary value on deaths and various forms of disease and incapacity. Applying those procedures, EPA estimated the respiratory-health improvements from the new standard to be worth $ 21 million to $ 34 million per year. The agency did not, of course, value the UV-related health costs, but its own valuation methods yield an estimate of $ 70 million to $ 96 million per year, more than twice the benefits.

These estimates are highly uncertain. Nevertheless, we think it likely that the damage to health from UV exposure resulting from EPA's new ozone standard would be greater than the respiratory-health benefits. Thus, the new standard, which EPA estimates would cost about $ 10 billion per year, would produce a small net deterioration in public health. Obviously, it would be better to leave the standard alone.

It is extremely unlikely, however, that EPA will consider the costs of more stringent standards in any form. EPA administrator Carol Browner has said repeatedly that the standards are based on the "best available science." But she has also called the appeals court's unanimous finding on UV health effects "one of the most bizarre sections of the decision . . . [seeming] to conclude that more pollution could even be good for public health -- that skies dark with pollution will help prevent skin cancer." This is, to put it politely, disinformation. Ozone at the levels in question is invisible and, indeed, requires sensitive monitoring equipment to detect, while its health benefits are documented in EPA's own research.

Some EPA watchers have long suspected that the agency's unspoken agenda is gradually to ratchet down all pollution standards to zero. The impulse driving this agenda may be mere bureaucratic power seeking or misguided environmental idealism. Other observers have seen the agency as a well-intentioned, competent, but beleaguered technocratic protector of our environment. EPA's handling of the UV issue in this critically important case shows which view is correct: The agency flatly dismisses the UV-related health benefits of ozone because environmental theology forbids their existence.