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Counting the larger cost of smog

Times Staff Writer

Concluding that smog is likely to be killing many people, a national panel of experts advised the Environmental Protection Agency to consider the economic value of lost lives when comparing the costs and benefits of setting new air pollution rules.

Ozone, the main ingredient of smog, is a lung-scarring gas created when fumes from vehicles, factories and consumer products react in the sun. Over the last two decades, many scientific studies have shown that on days when ozone or other air pollutants increase, deaths and hospitalizations from respiratory diseases and heart attacks rise.

The Los Angeles Basin has the nation’s worst ozone levels.

A National Research Council panel confirmed the link, finding “strong evidence” that people are dying from breathing ozone.

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“The committee concludes that short-term exposure to ambient ozone is likely to contribute to premature deaths,” according to the report released Tuesday. The committee was chaired by John C. Bailar III, professor emeritus of the University of Chicago’s Department of Health Studies.

One of the panel’s main tasks was helping the EPA decide how to calculate the value of a human life.

Like all federal agencies, the EPA must conduct a cost-benefit analysis on rules for which the cost of compliance is more than $100 million per year. As part of that process, the EPA often calculates the lives that could be saved if a new smog rule were adopted, and then attaches a dollar value to each life, currently about $7 million per life.

The value is based on studies of people who are asked how much they would be willing to pay to lower their chances of death.

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Interpreting the value of a life when setting air-quality rules has been highly controversial for years. Some industry groups and others contend that attaching a multimillion-dollar value to a life inflates the projected benefits of costly rules and is based on uncertain risks.

In the Bush administration, the White House Office of Management and Budget has questioned the reliability of the science linking air pollution to deaths and has instructed the EPA staff to remove ozone mortality benefits when setting some rules.

To try to resolve the debate, the EPA sought help from the National Research Council.

The panel included economists, physicians and epidemiologists, among others. They concluded that evidence of deaths linked to ozone is sufficient for government agencies to include a monetary value for lost lives when quantifying the health benefits of rules.

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The experts added that although the link is “robust,” some uncertainty remains about the number of deaths attributable to ozone. Several factors, including the role of other pollutants and questions about how much each individual breathes, introduce some uncertainties, they said.

Last month, the EPA set a tighter health standard for ozone for cities and counties. The new panel did not analyze that standard, but said that if there is a “safe” amount of ozone that would prevent deaths, it is probably below the current standard of 75 parts per billion.

Most of the increased deaths on smoggy days, the experts said, are among people with asthma, heart disease or other preexisting conditions.

The panel was asked to weigh in on an ethical debate about whether every life should be considered equal: the same dollar value for a 2-year-old as for a 90-year-old, for example.

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The experts recommended that the EPA continue using one value because it is the “most scientifically supportable approach.” But they recommended further research to explore different values based on longevity.

Environmental groups said the findings could change how the EPA and Office of Management and Budget analyze clean-air proposals.

“The nation’s leading scientists have issued a wake-up call to the U.S. government to strengthen the clean-air measures that will prevent the death and disease from smog air pollution,” said Dr. John Balbus, chief scientist for the Environmental Defense Fund.

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marla.cone@latimes.com


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