Most of what Americans “know” about air pollution is false.  

Polls show most Americans believe air pollution (1) has been steady or rising during the past few decades, (2) will worsen in the future, and (3) is a serious threat to people’s health. Despite the impression created by government bureaucrats, environmental lobbyists, and the media, air quality in the United States is the best it has been since before the Industrial Revolution and is continuing to improve. Environmentalists and regulators paint a false picture of the nation’s air quality to pad their budgets and increase their power. 

ADVERTISEMENT
The Obama administration imposed a new 70 parts per billion (ppb) ozone limit on October 1. States and counties will have to meet the standards by 2037.  

Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, last made the ozone standard more stringent in 2008, his last year in office. Even before many states have begun implementing recently approved plans to meet the previous standard, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has chosen to make the standard even stricter, throwing more counties and cities out of compliance with federal ozone standards and necessitating a new round of hearings, the formulation of new state plans to meet the new standards, and a high likelihood of costly litigation. 

EPA estimates the new rule will be among the most expensive in history, costing more than $1.4 billion per year. Research examining previous federal estimates of the costs of regulations show agencies, including EPA, consistently miscalculate the costs of the regulations they impose on the economy. Government cost estimates are routinely far lower than actual costs, so the cost of the new ozone rule could be much higher than EPA claims. 

Despite spending billions, possibly trillions, to meet the new standard, the government’s own data show air quality has improved and continues to do so, indicating stricter rules are unnecessary. Real-world experience shows the new rules are unlikely to protect human health. 

Air quality in America’s cities is better than it has been in more than a century. Ozone in particular has declined 33 percent since 1980 and 9 percent since 2008, despite the limits imposed by the Bush administration only recently having been implemented in many jurisdictions. 

What makes these air quality improvements so extraordinary is they occurred during a period of increasing motor vehicle use, energy production, and economic growth. Miles driven each year and the dollar value of goods and services (our gross domestic product) have both more than doubled since ozone was first regulated as a pollutant. 

The Obama administration has justified making ozone limits stricter, as all scoundrels do when proposing illegitimate expansions of government power, by claiming it’s “for the children.” In particular, EPA claims the ozone limits will reduce childhood asthma attacks. 

That claim is bunk.

Although the incidence of asthma among children has doubled since 1980, air pollution cannot be the cause: It declined while asthma prevalence increased. Moreover, emergency room visits and hospitalizations for asthma are lowest during July and August, when ozone levels are highest.  

Researchers have offered several hypotheses to account for the rise in asthma, none of them linked to air pollution—such as increased exposure to roach castings in urban areas, a deleterious effect on the immune system by squeaky-clean suburban homes, and the increase in obesity. 

If ozone could be reduced for free, making the standards stricter wouldn’t matter, but it isn’t free. And even EPA admits the new standard would, at best, only reduce hospital visits for asthma and other respiratory diseases by a few tenths of a percent while being among the most costly regulations ever. People will ultimately pay these costs through higher prices, lower wages and fewer choices, and fewer jobs. The higher costs of energy and goods and services due to Obama’s unneeded ozone regulations reduce people’s discretionary income, preventing them from spending more on healthier foods, exercise, and medical care, which are much more effective at improving health and welfare than stricter air rules. 

Recognizing the high costs and negligible benefits of the proposed lower limit, approximately 260 organizations—businesses, trade associations, unions, and consumer and public interest groups—asked the administration to keep the existing standard, saying research shows the current 75 ppb standard already protects public health. 

The newly proposed EPA standard poses a significant risk with little reason to expect much in the way of benefits. EPA should withdraw its proposal to tighten the ozone standard and acknowledge the current standard already protects Americans’ health—with room to spare.

Burnett. (hburnett@heartland.org) is a research fellow on energy and the environment at The Heartland Institute, a conservative, libertarian, nonprofit research center headquartered in Arlington Heights, Illinois.