NYT Editorial, October 14, 2006
The Bush administration loves to talk about the virtues of “sound science,” by which it usually means science that buttresses its own political agenda. But when some truly independent science comes along to threaten that agenda, the administration often ignores or minimizes it. The latest example involves the Environmental Protection Agency’s decision to reject the recommendations of experts inside and outside the government who had urged a significant tightening of federal standards regulating the amount of soot in the air.
At issue were so-called fine particles, tiny specks of soot that are less than one-thirtieth the diameter of a human hair. They penetrate deep into the lungs and circulatory system and have been implicated in tens of thousands of deaths annually from both respiratory and coronary disease. The E.P.A., obliged under the Clean Air Act to set new exposure levels every five years, tightened the daily standard. But it left unchanged the annual standard, which affects chronic exposure and which the medical community regards as more important.
In so doing, the agency rejected the recommendation of its own staff scientists and even that of its Clean Air Scientific Advisory Council, a 22-member group of outside experts that had recommended a significant tightening of the standards. Stephen Johnson, the agency administrator, claimed there was “insufficient evidence” linking health problems to long-term exposure. He added that “wherever the science gave us a clear picture, we took clear action,” noting also that “there was not complete agreement on the standard.”
One wonders how much evidence Mr. Johnson requires, and how “complete” an “agreement” must be before he takes action. A 20-2 vote in favor of stronger standards seems fairly convincing to us; likewise the unanimous plea for stronger standards from mainstream groups like the American Medical Association.
The environmental and medical communities suspect that the administration’s main motive was to save the power companies and other industrial sources of pollution about $1.9 billion in new investment that the more protective annual standard would have required. But here, too, the administration appears to have ignored expert advice. Last Friday, the agency released an economic analysis showing that in exchange for $1.9 billion in new costs, the stronger annual standards could save as many as 24,000 thousand lives and as much as $50 billion annually in health care and other costs to society. Studies like these always offer a range of possible outcomes, but even at the lower end — 2,200 lives and $4.3 billion in money saved — the cost-benefit ratios are very favorable.
In the next year or so, the administration must decide whether to tighten the standards for another pollutant, ground-level ozone, which causes smog and is also associated with respiratory diseases. The scientific advisory committee has tentatively recommended that the ozone standard be tightened, citing new evidence of smog’s adverse effects. This time Mr. Johnson should pay more attention to the scientists and less to the political strategists in the White House.