In Focus

Published: Saturday 15 February 1997

Latest proposals by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to curb air pollution in the US has kicked up a lot of dust. The proposals are aimed at tightening air quality standards and reducing deaths and illnesses resulting from air pollution. But US citizens are not happy. In order to breathe clean air, they will have to share a cost of US $10 billion annually. Critics argue that staggering costs apart, the proposals lack sound scientific footing.

The new regulations deal with two kinds of pollutants -- ozone (smog) and particulate matter (soot). Realising that its proposal for curbing ozone levels was not likely to produce sufficient public health benefits to justify its costs, the EPA combined it with its suggestions to contain soot. The soot standards are likely to save 20,000 lives per year in the country. By saving so many lives, the EPA hopes to produce benefits which will outstrip the costs of implementing the proposed measures.

However, critics contend that studies conducted by epidemiologists on behalf of the EPA to support these estimates are flawed. In its survey of more than 550,000 people, the EPA did not measure the volume of pollution each person was exposed to. They only deduced the level of pollution they might have encountered. The study also did not carefully examine important factors such as behavioural, occupational, environmental and genetic factors which could have great bearing on the death rates.

Support to the EPA's proposals from its own clean air scientific advisory committee was lacking. Most members of the committee advised the EPA against lowering the ozone standards as these would provide only marginal health benefits while the proposed standards for particulate matter received the backing of four out of 21 members. The proposals are awaiting a final nod from the Congress.

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