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Environment

Accounting for public heath gains from pollution control

All health benefits from regulation need to be in cost-benefit analyses, researchers say

by Cheryl Hogue
August 7, 2017 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 95, ISSUE 32

Despite scientific uncertainties, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency needs to estimate the value of all significant public health benefits when it considers regulating pollutants, a new report says (Science 2017, DOI: 10.1126/science.aam8204).

As it decides whether and how much to control pollution, EPA estimates costs to industry and others as well as benefits from improved public health. But when the agency calculates the dollar value of these benefits, it often fails to include all available health-related data, points out a team of researchers from EPA, New York University, and the University of California, San Francisco.

EPA has long estimated the monetary benefits from reducing exposure to pollutants linked to cancer. It also considers noncancer health effects, such as asthma and other lung problems, when determining the benefits of cuts in major air pollutants, such as ground-level ozone. But frequently, the agency omits noncancer effects from other contaminants, such as those in drinking water or hazardous waste sites, the researchers point out.

“Thus, benefits of preventing exposure to chemicals linked to adverse health outcomes such as birth defects, neuro­developmental effects, and cardiovascular disease are typically not quantified,” the paper says. This could lead the agency to overlook significant pluses when it considers whether and how much to regulate pollution, the authors suggest.

Scientific uncertainty associated with toxicity or epidemiology data has led the agency to exclude such information as it estimates benefits of regulation, explains coauthor Tracey Woodruff of the UCSF School of Medicine. But analytical calculations can account for uncertainty about adverse effects from pollutant exposure in cost-benefit assessments provided to EPA’s decision-makers, she says.

Policy-makers need the most complete information possible so they can make “more scientifically informed decisions,” Woodruff says.

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