Editorial: Opportunity at EPA

March 14, 2005
Nomination of a scientist to head the US Environmental Protection Agency-a scientist with 24 years of EPA experience-is a good move.

Nomination of a scientist to head the US Environmental Protection Agency-a scientist with 24 years of EPA experience-is a good move. And in environmental politics, one good move deserves another.

Confirmation of the nominee, Stephen L. Johnson, seems probable. Johnson has been acting EPA administrator since Jan. 26, when Michael Leavitt, the former administrator, was nominated secretary of Health and Human Services. Before that, Johnson had been deputy administrator. He holds a degree in biology from Taylor University in Indiana and an MS in pathology from George Washington University in Washington, DC. Before joining EPA, he was director of operations for Hazelton Laboratories Corp. and Bionetics Inc.

Too soft?

Environmental pressure groups of course grumble that Johnson will feel inclined to continue Bush administration policies they see as too soft on regulated industries. But they’d say that no matter whom Bush nominated. To those groups, environmental regulation means restricting business in every manner possible, regardless of economic consequences. Johnson has heard it all before. He has the expertise and perspective to steer EPA along a more constructive course that balances economic growth with steady environmental progress.

Toward that end, he can perform supreme service if he moderates the alarmism typical of environmental politics. Here’s a humble place to start this good move: EPA’s persistent calibration of programs to estimates of “premature deaths.”

It’s standard practice for EPA and the leaders it counsels to base arguments on numbers of premature deaths their initiatives are deemed likely to prevent. So when President George W. Bush in July 2002 announced his “Clear Skies” initiative, a legislative package of Clean Air Act adjustments, he confidently declared, “In 2020, Clear Skies would deliver $96 billion per year in health and visibility benefits, including preventing 12,000 premature deaths.” Lawmakers probably found it difficult to argue against a proposal with such a claim attached. That, of course, is why claims about premature deaths appear with such frequency.

“Tens of thousands of premature deaths yearly are associated with exposure to excess levels of PM2.5 [particulate matter 2.5 micron in diameter or smaller],” says a February report of the EPA inspector-general. There’s no question that fine particles such as these represent a health hazard. But “tens of thousands of premature deaths yearly” makes hazard sound like plague.

In assessments of health risk, the phrase “premature death” means something. But EPA never bothers to explain the concept in its press releases. It, like the president in his promotion of the Clean Air initiative, just serves up numbers related to a vague but ominous concept without offering a hint about how the measurement is made.

What are premature deaths, anyway? How does someone count them? It’s reasonable to assume that the estimates represent groups of people with serious conditions subject to aggravation from exposure to the pollution in question. And if, because of the aggravation, death occurs sooner than it would have otherwise, it is certainly premature. But how does anyone know when death would have occurred otherwise? How is that baseline adjusted to reflect the serious conditions already affecting the study group? Is the altered longevity a matter of decades? Years? Months? Weeks? Without answers to questions like these, which appear nowhere near the passages quoted here or in many other such statements in EPA documents, quantities like Bush’s 12,000 in 2020 and the EPA IG’s tens of thousands yearly mean very little. They are, in fact, just gruesome propaganda.

Hazard and cost

In the tumult of environmental politics, exaggeration about hazard and cost seems to come naturally. So far in the roughly 35-year-old history of political environmentalism, however, the US has neither poisoned nor bankrupted itself into extinction. It has, in fact, become cleaner, healthier, and more prosperous. Further progress would be easier to achieve if the environmental debate weren’t so heavily laden with attempts to impose fright.

As a scientist, Johnson understands the importance of rational discourse. As a long-time EPA official, he has endured enough political issues to know hyperbole when he sees it. As EPA administrator, he’ll have the chance to subject the environment to more-sophisticated discussion than it receives now. From the government, that might well be what it needs most.