The Cost of Preventing a Single Cancer
Figure VII

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the United States spends $115 billion per year to clean up the environment. This equals 2.3 percent of our GNP, 40 percent of the defense budget and almost three times the amount spent on the environment by the entire European Community. [150]

Are we getting our money's worth? Progressive environmentalists recognize that there is a limit to society's willingness to spend money to achieve environmental goals. As a result, progressives support spending in ways that assure the "biggest bang for the buck."

Case Study: The War Against Cancer. [151] About one in every three Americans will get cancer. About one in five will die from it. What should be done? An executive of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says that the most effective way to combat cancer would be to give the entire EPA budget to the American Cancer Society. [152]

But that's not what the bureaucrats are doing. Despite the fact that industrial products and food additives cause less than 3 percent of all cancers, [153] the federal government is imposing billions of dollars of costs on the American public in its efforts to prevent exposure to trace amounts of chemicals in our environment. The most common government standard is that a chemical should be outlawed if one person out of one million exposed over a lifetime could theoretically get cancer from it. Even though 300,000 people out of one million will get cancer anyway, regulations cost the public billions to prevent the theoretical death of one more.

Typical EPA methods for evaluating the public health risks from air pollution greatly overstate those risks. For example, the EPA calculates potential risks from exposure to an air pollutant by testing the chemical for toxicity in laboratory animals:

  • The chemical is administered to rats and mice in massive daily doses just below the amount that would kill them immediately.

  • At these high levels of exposure, one out of every two chemicals ever tested (both natural and man-made) eventually causes cancer in at least one species of rodent.

  • The EPA then extrapolates from rodents to humans and estimates the human risk of cancer from exposure to the same chemical.

Scientists are increasingly skeptical about the value of extrapolating from these rodent experiments the risk to humans from ordinary exposure. Many are also skeptical about what the EPA does next:

  • To calculate the "risk" to human populations, the EPA postulates an imaginary "Most Exposed Individual" (MEI) who lives on the property line of the emissions source and breathes the highest level of emissions from that source for 70 years, 24 hours each day.

  • The EPA then assumes that everyone is an MEI. [154]

  • Even with these pessimistic assumptions, the EPA estimates that only 1,700 to 2,700 cancers are caused each year by exposure to approximately 90 potentially hazardous air pollutants.

  • While that hypothetical number may seem large, it is a small fraction of the almost one million cancer cases occurring each year in America. [155]

Even if the EPA's risk assessments were correct, the cost of preventing cancer through EPA regulations is extremely high. Some estimate that the air toxics section of the amended Clean Air Act will cost from $20 billion to $30 billion – about 10 to 15 times the entire budget of the National Cancer Institute. But because the regulations target only the largest polluters, the maximum reduction in cancer cases is 350 to 500 per year. That represents a cost of between $40 million and $86 million per cancer avoided. [156]

The EPA's extreme risk models are notoriously faulty, however. A new study of the largest concentration of industrial coke ovens in the country (Allegheny County, PA) concludes that the EPA's estimate of cancer caused by coke emissions is exaggerated by a multiple of 100: [157]

  • By the EPA's own calculations, its regulations on coke emissions cost $6.8 million per cancer prevented.

  • Based on more realistic calculations, the cost is $682 million to prevent a single instance of cancer.

The EPA's cost-is-no-object approach is also reflected in its new benzene regulations, which impose a cost of $200 million a year to prevent an EPA-estimated 3.4 cases of cancer: [158]

  • By the EPA's own calculations, its new benzene regulations will cost $59 million to prevent a single instance of cancer.

  • By more realistic calculations, the cost of each cancer prevented will be $5.8 billion.

Applying this more realistic method to all air toxics, it appears that the Clean Air Act's new air toxic regulations may prevent three to five cancers per year rather than 350 to 500. The cost per cancer prevented will be between $4 and $9 billion per year. [See Figure VII]

The National Cancer Institute's goal is to reduce the nation's 470,000 annual cancer deaths by one-half by the year 2000. Yet the institute does not even mention reducing carcinogenic chemicals in the environment as one of its objectives. Maximizing gains from the use of resources is not necessarily a goal of Congress however.

Case Study: Government Efforts to Reduce Smog. Perhaps the greatest "success story" under the old Clean Air Act is that automobile tail pipe emissions of carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons are down 96 percent, and emissions of nitrogen oxides have decreased about 76 percent. This has cost consumers dearly. But the "easy" gains, as expensive as they were, have all been made. Future reductions in automobile emissions, which would be even more expensive, might not produce any benefits

All new cars and about 75 percent of the oldest cars on the road currently meet the EPA's tail pipe emission standards. The older cars that don't meet these standards are causing most of the problems. In fact, only 10 percent of the cars on the road produce about 50 percent of the pollution. Since more stringent new car standards will not reduce the pollution from this dirtiest segment of the U.S. car fleet, the new Clean Air Act calls for a mandatory switch to "clean" fuels in nonattainment areas. Clean fuels including methanol, ethanol and natural gas are so called because they produce fewer major pollutants when burned than does gasoline. However, each fuel has its own drawbacks, such as limited supply, difficult refueling processes or extreme toxicity to humans. For example, the most highly favored gasoline substitute, methanol, is both dangerous and expensive: [159]

  • Methanol emits 10 times more formaldehyde (a potential carcinogen) than gasoline and is 25 times as toxic to humans.

  • By one estimate, the widespread use of methanol would increase annual health care expenditures by $50 to $100 million.

  • The use of methanol would virtually double the price of motor fuel per gallon at the pump.

Incidentally, methanol appears to be the cheapest alternative to gasoline overall, and no large sources of any alternative fuel currently are available to satisfy transportation needs.

Case Study: A Better Way to Reduce Smog. [160] Millions of dollars are already being spent in Arizona, Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico on the mandated use of oxygenated fuels in vehicles as a carbon-monoxide control measure. Oxygenated fuels cost more, decrease gas mileage and damage vehicle components. Data from the EPA show that simply tuning up the small minority of dirty cars is twice as effective – and much cheaper and simpler:

  • Of 84 vehicles studied, 80 emitted a total of 397 pounds of carbon monoxide, while the dirtiest four emitted 338 pounds.

  • When the entire fleet was put on oxygenated fuel, the total emissions reduction was 203 pounds, with the dirty cars contributing 107 pounds of the improvement.

  • If the dirty four were tuned to emit the average of the rest of the fleet, they would emit a total of 20 pounds – a 318-pound reduction.

Similar findings were produced by a Colorado Department of Health study:

  • Using 10 percent ethanol fuels reduced the fleet emissions of 10 vehicles from 434 pounds of carbon monoxide to 335 pounds.

  • Tuning up only the two dirtiest cars and using normal fuel reduced fleet emissions to 294 pounds.

A team of researchers led by Donald Stedman, a chemistry professor at the University of Denver, has developed a device that can measure the carbon monoxide emissions of an automobile as it passes a sensor. Using the device would enable municipalities to detect precisely which cars pollute and require corrective action. A program based on remote sensing and tune-ups of the worst polluters would cost about $40 per ton of carbon monoxide removed – versus an estimated $500 per ton with mandated oxygenated-fuel programs.