Federal Court’s Decision to Strike Down Air Standards Will Save Lives

The recent federal court decision striking down the Environmental Protection Agency’s new, more stringent air quality standards was a major victory not only for government accountability advocates, but for public health.

In 1997, EPA Administrator Carol Browner announced new air quality standards requiring a 25% reduction in ozone emissions and raising the particulate matter standard to cover particles as small as 1/28th the width of a human hair.1 But on May 14, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit overturned the regulations, ruling that they constituted “an unconstitutional delegation of legislative power.” The reason? The EPA failed to adequately explain why the new standards would do a better job of protecting human health than the current standards – or, for that matter, any other standards – leaving the court with the distinct impression that the EPA was exercising its “delegated authority arbitrarily.” In so doing, the EPA was not implementing law, but making it. The court wisely held that important choices of social policy are to be made by Congress, the branch of our government most responsive to the public.2

As great a victory as the ruling was in making government bureaucrats accountable to the public, it was an even greater victory for public health.

Administrator Browner had argued that the new standards are necessary to prevent 15,000 premature deaths and to provide relief to some 250,000 asthma sufferers each year.3 But the rules would have cost more lives than they saved. Not only would the regulations have failed to deliver the promised health benefits, but they would have threatened public health in unintended ways.

Notwithstanding EPA claims to the contrary, the correlation between air pollution and respiratory illness is very weak – if it exists at all. Health statistics from the city of Philadelphia, for example, reveal that the city’s asthma death rates rose steadily between 1969 and 1991 – from 1.69 to 2.41 per 100,000 population – despite the fact that concentrations of every major air pollutant declined during the same period.4

Precisely how the EPA determined its new standards could save 15,000 lives is unknown. The agency still refuses to share with the public the data upon which this claim was based.

What we do know is that tighter air quality standards would have cost lives by imposing economic costs of up to $150 billion per year. Lives would have been lost because higher regulatory costs result in lost wages and higher prices, making fewer dollars available for such things as health care, nutrition and better neighborhoods, all of which improve mortality.

Systems engineer Ralph Keeney estimates that for every $5 million in regulatory costs, one American dies prematurely each year. Based on this formula, the Reason Public Policy Institute estimated that up to 27,000 Americans would have lost their lives each year if the more stringent air quality regulations had been allowed to take full effect.5

And this isn’t the only way the new standards threatened public health. Recent studies suggest that ground-level ozone – a substance the EPA’s air quality standards were designed to reduce – help block ultraviolet radiation responsible for certain forms of skin cancer. The EPA didn’t even consider this in setting the new air quality standards. The recent court ruling took the EPA to task on this as well, ruling that “EPA must consider positive identifiable effects of a pollutant’s presence in the ambient air…” in setting air quality standards.6

Although the EPA is almost certain to appeal the court decision, at least for now, the EPA won’t be able to enforce air quality regulations that place Americans’ lives in greater jeopardy. For that, we should all be grateful.


David Ridenour is vice president of The National Center for Public Policy Research. Comments may be sent to [email protected].


1 David A. Ridenour, National Policy Analysis #173 “President’s Interpretation of ‘Environmental Justice’ Jeopardizes Minority Health and Well-Being,” The National Center for Public Policy Research, Washington, D.C., October 1997, p.4.

2 United States Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit, American Trucking Associations v. United States Environmental Protection Agency, May 14, 1999.

3 Ridenour, p. 4.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.

6 American Trucking Associations v. United States Environmental Protection.

The National Center for Public Policy Research is a communications and research foundation supportive of a strong national defense and dedicated to providing free market solutions to today’s public policy problems. We believe that the principles of a free market, individual liberty and personal responsibility provide the greatest hope for meeting the challenges facing America in the 21st century.