This article first appeared in the Washington Times on January 22, 2013.
China’s notoriously bad air has recently been especially hard to breathe. It also shows that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) science is especially hard to believe.
A January temperature inversion over China has caused the air to stagnate and emissions of air pollutants to concentrate, especially over urban areas like Beijing. The air is so bad that it has forced the Chinese government to allow its media to agitate for pollution controls.
The air pollutant receiving the most media attention is fine particulate matter — soot and dust, or “PM2.5” in EPA-speak.
U.S. communities are out of daily compliance with EPA regulatory standards if local PM2.5 levels exceed 35 millionths of a gram (micrograms) per cubic meter of air in a 24-hour period. Communities are out of annual compliance with EPA standards if their average daily PM2.5 level exceeds 12 micrograms per cubic meter. This latter standard was just tightened from 15 micrograms per cubic meter in December.
As a practical matter, the average level of PM2.5 in U.S. air is about 10 micrograms per cubic meter, and the EPA standards are hardly ever exceeded in the vast majority of the country. Nonetheless, the agency’s justification for such strict standards is its assertion that PM2.5 kills people — a lot of them.
Outgoing EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson testified about PM2.5 before Congress in September 2011: “Particulate matter causes premature death. It doesn’t make you sick. It is directly causal to you dying sooner than you should.” Mrs. Jackson also testified that PM2.5 kills about 570,000 Americans annually, about 25 percent of all U.S. deaths.
In scientific documents, the EPA has repeatedly concluded that any exposure to PM2.5 can kill, and it can kill people within hours or days of inhalation. The EPA has estimated that every 10 microgram-per-cubic-meter increase in PM2.5 increases daily death rates by about 1 percent. That rate is asserted to be higher for vulnerable subpopulations like the elderly or sick.
What should all this mean for China?
On the worst day so far of the ongoing Chinese air pollution event, Beijing’s PM2.5 levels peaked at 886 micrograms per cubic meter — an incredible 89 times greater than the U.S. daily average. Based on EPA risk estimates, we should expect the daily death toll in Beijing to have skyrocketed by 89 percent on a same-day and next-day basis. Remember that PM2.5 essentially causes “sudden death,” according to the EPA.
Beijing has a population of about 19.6 million and an annual death rate of a little more than 500 per 100,000. This means that about 100,000 people die annually in Beijing, or about 274 per day.
According to EPA risk estimates, the day the PM2.5 level spiked to 886 micrograms per cubic meter, the daily death toll should have increased to about 518 deaths — that is, if what the EPA says about PM2.5 is true.
Thus far, however, there is no evidence from China that the EPA’s claims about PM2.5 are anywhere close to being true.
The Chinese media have reported on four deaths related to the current air pollution crisis. Two Chinese boys were reportedly killed in a train accident caused by visibility problems. Two other people were apparently killed in a car accident, again caused by visibility problems. Yet there are no reports of a spike in deaths caused by breathing the heavily polluted air.
One Beijing hospital reportedly claims to have experienced a 20% to 30% increase in admission for respiratory ailments — but no deaths have been reported or claimed, and deaths are key to EPA’s PM2.5 regulations. Even the reported respiratory hospitalizations, to the extent any of them can actually be attributed to poor air quality, would more than likely be due to a genuinely toxic air pollutant or mixture other than mere PM2.5.
The EPA justifies its economically burdensome PM2.5 regulations by claiming that reducing PM2.5 levels saves lives and that each life saved is worth $9 million in monetized benefits.
When the EPA issued its anti-coal Cross-State Air Pollution Rule and Mercury Air Transport Standard rules in 2011, for example, the agency claimed that as many as 320,000 lives would be saved annually, returning about $290 billion worth of economic benefits every year.
Given that the coal industry is only worth about $65 billion annually to the economy, shutting it down in exchange for the purported benefits of EPA rules would be an obvious economic no-brainer — that is, if the EPA’s characterization of ambient PM2.5 was even half true.
We have just witnessed a natural and real-life experiment in China of the agency’s PM2.5 hypothesis. So far, it seems, the EPA’s hypothesis is failing miserably.
While it’s possible that the Chinese government is suppressing reports of pollution-related deaths, it’s also true that photos, reports and news stories are nonetheless leaking out — and none support the EPA’s claims. The U.S. Embassy in Beijing, which monitors Beijing air quality on a real-time basis, has so far offered no information or evidence that anyone has been harmed, much less killed, by such an extreme air pollution incident.
Congress ought to take this opportunity to investigate what’s happening in China while the facts are fresh, and then compare the seemingly benign reality of extreme PM2.5 pollution to the EPA’s costly fantasy.