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Risky regulations

"Risky regulations" Continued...

Issue: "2012: The Year Ahead," Jan. 14, 2012

Some scientists, moreover, doubt whether the efforts to reign in U.S. power plant emissions will really lower mercury concentrations in U.S. fish to acceptable levels. Roughly a third of the earth's mercury emissions comes not from industrial sources but natural ones, like volcanoes and ocean vents, and of the airborne mercury that is deposited in the United States, over half likely comes from foreign nations like China, the world's largest emitter.

The EPA predicts its new mercury and air toxics rules will save between 6,800 and 17,000 people from premature deaths, prevent 11,000 cases of acute bronchitis, and avoid 120,000 cases of aggravated asthma. (Oddly, almost all these advertised benefits would come from the reduction of pollution unrelated to the rules: "Fine particulate matter," which the EPA already regulates, will be coincidentally removed from the air as the metals and gases are scrubbed.) The agency predicts a $5 to $13 return in health benefits for every dollar invested, leading some to believe $11 billion a year in compliance costs is a bargain.

Regulation has hidden health effects that shouldn't be overlooked, though. Timothy Terrell, an economics professor at Wofford College in South Carolina and a Cornwall senior fellow, told me economists estimate that for every $10 million to $20 million in increased regulatory costs, a life is lost, statistically speaking: "You don't know who that is, but it might be that because we had lower income, we lived in a more dangerous area, drove a less safe car, had to take a more dangerous job-or maybe didn't take care of ourselves as much as we might otherwise."

Terrell said although the EPA rules may save some lives, "You're costing lives on the other side because you're reducing incomes, reducing the availability of energy, and raising costs to people of obtaining some very definite benefits from having cheaper electricity and jobs."

Republicans and a handful of Democrats in the U.S. House are concerned about those hidden costs. In September they passed the TRAIN Act, a bill that would delay implementation of the EPA's mercury and air toxics rules for a year or more while a committee studies their potential economic impact. The legislation faces Senate opposition and a White House veto threat.

Risk analysis

Looming over the dispute between the two evangelical groups is a larger conflict between two approaches to handling risk: One views nature and people as in need of protection and focuses on preventing as much risk as possible. The other views them as resilient and focuses on regulating only the most credible threats. The tension between these approaches is noticeable in debates over issues like climate change, flu immunization, and lead laws.

Some experts believe government often has a responsibility to prevent risks even when our understanding of them is still evolving. "Uncertainty doesn't dictate inaction," said Michael Vandenbergh, director of Vanderbilt Law School's environmental law program. "We act every day in response to a risk of a flood, or a hurricane, or a house burning down, even though it's uncertain whether it will occur. We buy insurance; we drive more safely."

On the other hand, setting down rules before clearly defining the problem can lead to policies based on assumption instead of fact, said Andrew Maynard, director of the Risk Science Center at the University of Michigan. Maynard, whose research background is in nanotechnology and its health hazards, was recently perturbed upon hearing that the European Commission-a group providing oversight to regulation in the European Union-planned to establish a legal definition of nanomaterials as "a policy decision" (as a representative put it), even though scientists disagree about what a nanomaterial even is.

"It seems to be saying that, 'We haven't got the foggiest what this thing called nanotechnology is, but we're going to make up a definition so we can regulate it anyway,'" said Maynard. "That leaves it in a position where we have no idea what we're regulating and why, and that can't be good for business, and it simply can't be good for people's health." He said some people automatically assume that a newly invented nanomaterial will be a health hazard, but research doesn't back up that view.

Dueling math models reflect different approaches to risk. The EPA's default method for calculating chemicals' cancer risk is a model called "linear non-threshold," which assumes that even the smallest amount of a carcinogenic substance increases a person's risk of cancer. (By this assumption, for example, a single X-ray could cause cancer.) This model is under challenge today by proponents of models based on "hormesis," the idea that tiny amounts of radiation or toxics are harmless or even beneficial.

With all the tension between cost, benefits, and risk, how do we write regulations that are good for everybody? Maynard of the Risk Science Center said the best policies invite all the stakeholders to the table, and are adaptable to change in case science brings new information to light: "Any regulation is going to be inadequate. It's just that you aim for them to be as good as possible." - Daniel James Devine

Daniel James Devine
Daniel James Devine

Daniel is a reporter for WORLD who covers science, technology, and other topics in the Midwest from his home base in Indiana. Follow Daniel on Twitter @DanJamDevine.

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