Politics & Policy

“Out of The Corner:” Debating Pollution

EDITOR’S NOTE: What follows is an installment of an occasional blog-extension series. Last Friday, there was a bit of a little bit of a pile-on in The Corner about a Rod Dreher pollution post. Below is a response to the thread from Joel Schwartz, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. It goes on a little longer than a regular blog post, as sometimes happens, so we’re taking this discussion “Out of The Corner” for the moment. If this turns into more of a debate, we’ll add any subsequent posts in this thread to this page (the latest at the top, like on most blogs) and alert you in The Corner.

BREATHING IN DALLAS [Joel Schwartz]

According to Rod Dreher, the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area has “filthy air” that exacts a large toll on asthmatics. He is mistaken on both counts.

In no way does the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area have “filthy air.” The entire metro area complies with all of EPA’s current standards for airborne particulate matter (soot, dust, etc.) and also complies with the tougher standard for fine particulate matter that EPA announced last December. Particulate matter levels dropped 11 percent in the metro area from 1999 to 2004, and 40 percent over the last two decades. The region also complies with all EPA standards for carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide, and levels of all of these pollutants continue to decline as well.

Ozone is the only pollutant for which parts of the Dallas-Fort Worth area still violate EPA standards, but even here the news is good. The entire area complies with EPA’s old “1-hour” standard, and about half the region complies with the substantially tougher “8-hour” standard that EPA began enforcing last year. The average monitoring location in the metro area exceeds the 1-hour standard on zero days per year, and exceeds the 8-hour standard 4 days per year. 8-hour exceedance days declined about 30 percent during the last 20 years.

Air pollution at modern levels is a minor factor in people’s health. Air pollution can’t be a cause of the rise in asthma prevalence over the last two decades, because air pollution of all kinds has been dropping all over the U.S. at the same time asthma has risen. Air pollution also makes an imperceptible contribution to asthma exacerbations. For example, the California Air Resources Board (CARB), the most aggressive air regulatory agency in the world, recently estimated that eliminating all human-caused ozone in the state would reduce total asthma emergency room visits by about 1.8%. And this is in a state where most people live in areas with much higher ozone than Dallas-Fort Worth.

Like Mr. Dreher and Judge Keliher, I too would like to reduce the large burden of asthma on America’s children. One of the great tragedies of modern public policy is environmentalists’ and regulators’ success in creating the false impression that reducing air pollution will have perceptible benefits for asthmatics.

Regardless of the tiny health effects of current air pollution levels, air quality will only continue to improve. EPA has already adopted requirements that will eliminate more than 80 percent of remaining air pollution from automobiles, diesel trucks and off-road diesel equipment, which together contribute the vast majority of current air pollution. EPA has also adopted regulations that will eliminate most remaining air pollution from power plants and industrial facilities.

Of course, even if air pollution is harming only a tiny fraction of Americans, isn’t one person harmed by air pollution one person too many? In an ideal world, of course. But in the real world we have many needs and aspirations and we face many risks to our health and safety. We have insufficient resources to address all of them. The regulatory measures to attain EPA’s stringent standards for particulates and ozone are likely costing Americans more than $100 billion per year, or more than $1,000 per household. Everyone pays in the form of higher prices, lower wages, and reduced choices. For these huge expenditures, we will at best eliminate a percent or two of the total burden of disease and disability Americans suffer. Probably less if you take into account that fact that regulators’ benefit estimates largely exclude studies that report smaller or zero air-pollution effects. It would be hard to get less risk reduction per dollar than you get from reducing ozone.

It’s a shame that most of what Mr. Dreher and Judge Keliher “know” about air pollution is false. But there is one thing Mr. Dreher is right about: As long as Republicans are as misinformed about the environment as Democrats, it probably is a good political strategy for Republicans to start looking more like environmentalists.

Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”

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