Exploiting Asthmatic Children

The EPA Overstates the Public Health Benefits of its Air-Quality Rules

Ben Lieberman is a policy analyst with the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

Childhood asthma is on the rise, and the experts are not sure why. The Environmental Protection Agency blames air pollution, and uses concerns about asthmatic children to justify its aggressive implementation of the Clean Air Act. In contrast, a recent National Academy of Sciences report points to indoor, not outdoor, contaminants as the likely cause. If the National Academy is right, EPA is wasting billions on misdirected solutions to this very real problem.

In 1997, EPA ran into some trouble promoting its tough new ambient air-quality standards for ozone and particulate matter (smog and soot). Even the agency’s own Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee concluded that tightening the already strict existing standards will garner few if any additional public health benefits. With such a weak factual case for action, EPA Administrator Carol Browner switched to emotional arguments, claiming that the new rules would prevent “hundreds of thousands of cases of significantly decreased lung function in children and cases of aggravated asthma.”

EPA’s asthma-pollution connection is exaggerated. In fact, over the same 25-year span that childhood asthma incidence and mortality has approximately doubled, ambient concentrations of ozone and particulate matter have substantially declined. Sidestepping the evidence, the agency misused the issue to gain support for its costly new rules, and it worked—at least until a federal court invalidated them two years later. The case is headed to the Supreme Court.

Last year, those same asthmatic children were said to be suffering because of sport utility vehicles. In December, EPA enacted new motor vehicle emissions standards, including far stricter ones for SUVs. During a press conference announcing the rules, President Clinton told a group of Washington, D.C., elementary-school students that “Carol Browner has said to me, you have got to do something to reduce incidents of asthma and other respiratory diseases among young children.” According to Vice President Gore, EPA’s tightened emissions standards will result in “260,000 fewer asthma attacks in children, and more than 4,000 fewer premature deaths.”

Just a month earlier, EPA and the Department of Justice announced the filing of lawsuits against 17 midwestern and southern electric power plants, claiming, among other things, that their emissions carve a childhood asthma path that stretches all the way to the northeast. Attorney General Janet Reno stated that “when children can’t breathe because of pollution from a utility plant hundreds of miles away, something must be done.” As of May 2000, over 40 such coal-fired facilities have been targeted with lawsuits or administrative actions.

It appears that EPA and its allies will play the childhood asthma card again and again, as long as it wins. The issue has even become a part of the presidential race, with Sierra Club television ads blaming the suffering of young asthmatics in Texas on Governor Bush’s supposedly weak enforcement of air-quality standards.

Primary Culprit

Obviously, not all of these putative causes of childhood asthma can be as significant as claimed, and it is quite possible that none of them are. Building on a growing body of evidence, “Clearing the Air: Asthma and Indoor Air Exposures,” by the National Academy’s Institute of Medicine, makes a compelling case that indoor air pollutants, such as insect remains and molds, are the primary culprit. Though the report does not directly compare the relative contributions of indoor and outdoor air, it found “strong, causal evidence linking common indoor substances to the development or worsening of asthma symptoms in susceptible people.”

As for why asthma has been on the increase, several other studies have blamed the federal government’s policy of promoting tighter, more energy-efficient residences, schools, and other buildings in response to the energy crisis of the 1970s. These efforts may have had the unintended consequence of trapping more pollutants indoors, including several now implicated as asthma triggers. Unfortunately, the Clinton administration is stepping up its energy efficiency agenda in the name of fighting global warming, seemingly oblivious to the downside of heavily insulated and less well-ventilated homes.

Even EPA’s own indoor air experts concede that “indoor levels of many pollutants may be two to five times, and on occasion more than one hundred times, higher than outdoor levels,” and that “most people spend as much as 90 percent of their time indoors.” Indeed, EPA funded the Institute of Medicine study as well as others implicating indoor air pollution as a health threat. Clearly, the agency is knowingly overstating the public health benefits of many rules targeting outdoor pollutants.

Public concerns about the increase in childhood asthma are entirely justified. Indeed, it is hard to think of anything more important than the health of children. That’s why it is so disturbing to see the issue being exploited for bureaucratic gain.

Every dollar spent fighting an overblown asthma threat is a dollar that can’t be used to make real progress. Keep that in mind the next time the EPA announces a new measure to “protect” the asthmatic children.