The Environmental Protection Agency is making "significant strides" on issues such as "protecting children's health" and "confronting climate change," says a memo from EPA administrator Lisa P. Jackson. Not surprisingly, the agency has requested a 37 percent budget increase for fiscal year 2010.
Politically speaking, the new Obama EPA may indeed be making some strides. But what concrete public-health benefits can Jackson — or any EPA administrator — realistically claim to have achieved?
The EPA's public-health mission is misleading, because it is charged with addressing risks that are too small to measure or be regulated away. The agency's current risk-assessment practices compound the problem, harming both public health and our economic well-being. The agency issues extremely high benefit estimates for its regulations. But these estimates are out of touch with reality.
For example, the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) reported in 2004 that over a ten-year period, most of the benefits from significant federal regulations resulted from just four EPA Clean Air Act rules. The OIRA noted that the uncertainty related to EPA estimates was "large." A better description would be to say that the estimates are "highly implausible."
Retired scientist Michael Gough, formerly with the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment, has demonstrated that the total number of cancers that the EPA could feasibly regulate away is small. Gough came to this result by analyzing the data found in Sir Richard Doll and Richard Peto's landmark 1981 study on the causes of cancer, along with risks estimates in the 1989 EPA study Reducing Risk.
Reducing Risk was an internal EPA research project designed to assess whether the agency was on the right track. It determined that the EPA had set the wrong priorities, devoting substantial resources to low-tier risks. This report remains relevant today, as do Gough's findings.
Using data from Reducing Risk and the Doll-Peto study, Gough found that no more than 3 percent of all cancers can be associated with environmental pollution. "If the EPA risk assessment techniques are accurate," he wrote, "and all identified carcinogens amenable to EPA regulations were completely controlled," which is impossible, "about 6,400 cancer deaths annually (about 1.3% of the current annual total of 435,000 cancer deaths) would be prevented. When cancer risks are estimated using a method like that employed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the number of regulatable cancers is smaller, about 1,400 (about 0.25%)."
It is worth emphasizing that the widely accepted Doll-Peto study shows that the overwhelming majority of cancers result from sources outside EPA control. That is why the World Health Organization has suggested in its World Cancer Report (2003) that cancer-prevention efforts should focus on three factors: tobacco use, diet, and infections — which together, the WHO notes, account for 75 percent of all cancer cases worldwide.
The EPA's mission involves spending considerable amounts of tax dollars to regulate risks that are in most cases too insignificant to be scientifically demonstrated. The agency has compounded this problem by employing highly questionable scientific assumptions when assessing risks — such as emphasizing high-dose rodent studies.
The environmentalists like animal tests and the uncertainty of their results. These studies give the EPA an excuse to rely on the precautionary principle — the notion that, without full knowledge of the risks, it is "better to be safe than sorry," and thus better to regulate even more tightly.
Reliance on animal studies also allows regulators to choose from a wide range of animals when extrapolating to humans. A certain chemical doesn't cause cancer in rats? Try it on mice. Or monkeys. Then say that humans are just like whichever animal eventually got cancer after being given a very high dose — and add that humans (particularly children) may be even more sensitive. Regulations end up having layer after layer of extra precaution.
No wonder activists feigned outrage when the EPA considered a study to assess the effects of common household chemicals and pesticides on toddlers. The study wouldn't have exposed kids to additional chemicals — only observed kids whose families already used existing, EPA-approved products sold on the market. The National Academy of Sciences approved the ethics of such an approach, but activists quashed it — knowing that the EPA would be left relying on vaguer animal studies when crafting regulations.
Further faulty studies and misguided regulations do more than hinder the economy. They also lead to bans on valuable products that otherwise could be saving lives, such as chemicals that fight disease-carrying insects, retard the spread of fires, and help grow healthy fruits and vegetables (one of the few dietary factors shown to combat cancer).
Ironically, contracting the EPA's budget would do more for public health than increasing it. Congress should keep this in mind. Until the EPA refocuses its scientific assumptions to target genuine risk, lawmakers should not boost its funding.