Haze of Air-Quality Regs May Choke Minority Communities

By Ridenour, David A. | Insight on the News, December 8, 1997 | Go to article overview

Haze of Air-Quality Regs May Choke Minority Communities


Ridenour, David A., Insight on the News


Is cleaner air worth sacrificing the health and well-being of blacks, Hispanics and other minorities? The Clinton administration may believe the answer is yes.

In July, the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, received President Clinton's blessing to impose expensive new air-quality standards that require states to reduce ozone (smog) emissions by 25 percent, and ratchet up the particulate matter (soot and dust) standard to cover particles as small as 2.5 microns--equal to 1/28th the width of a human hair. The EPA argues that these stringent measures are necessary to prevent 15,000 deaths from respiratory illness each year.

But instead of saving lives, the new standards could claim them by imposing huge economic costs on the public that reduce disposable income. Minority communities would be particularly vulnerable.

The first problem with the EPA's claim that tougher air standards would save lives is that it defies historical record. For example, a study of asthma death rates in Philadelphia between 1969 and 1991 by David M. Lang and Marcia Palansky and summarized in the New England Journal of Medicine found that asthma deaths steadily increased during that 32-year period, despite a sharp decline in all major air pollutants during the same time. Asthma deaths increased from 1.68 per 100,000 population in 1969 to 2.41 per 100,000 in 1991. Significantly, Lang and Palansky found that death from asthma was more common in census tracts in which greater proportions of residents were black, Hispanic, female or poor.

"The hospitalization rate for asthma among African-American children is twice that of whites, but socioeconomic status is a more significant risk factor," said Floyd Malveau, dean of the Howard University Medical School in Washington. "Poor environmental conditions in urban communities, along with other factors, such as inadequate access to health care, are what tip the asthma-incidence statistics."

The second problem with the EPA's claim that the new standards will save lives is that the EPA fails to take into account any lives lost due to any economic hardships the new, more stringent standards trigger.

The EPA's new standards will cost lives because ultimately individuals, not "wealthy" corporations, will be forced to pay the costs of the regulations and this will mean reductions in real disposable income. Since people tend to use additional income to make their lives healthier through purchases of health insurance, more nutritious food and homes in safer neighborhoods, such costs will lead to higher mortality risks. In fact, data from the National Longitudinal Mortality Study suggests that one fatality is induced for every $5 million in regulatory costs, assuming the costs are borne equally among the populace. The bottom line: Wealthier equals healthier.

A recent study by Kenneth Green of the Los Angeles-based Reason Public Policy Center supports this conclusion. The study, Rethinking EPA's Proposed Ozone and Particulate Standards, found that the EPA's more stringent air-quality standards will cost $90 billion to $150 billion each year. Assuming these regulatory costs are equally distributed among the population and that they run $120 billion per year, the middle of the projected range of costs, up to 27,000 Americans would die prematurely each year, according to Reason magazine. …

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