Asthma, Roaches And Regulations

They are repulsive and annoying, multiply rapidly, scurry off in unexpected directions, and harm human health. Cockroaches and bad federal regulations have more in common than most people think.

A study in the May 8 New England Journal of Medicine concludes that cockroach dust induces asthma attacks, and "may help explain the frequency of asthma-related health problems in inner-city children." The increase in asthma incidence and mortality is but one example of several health effects linked to indoor air pollutants. Unfortunately, the federal government has exacerbated this problem, while wasting billions on false solutions.

It is no coincidence that indoor air-related health problems began to increase after the "energy crisis" of the 1970s. In an overblown response to fears of energy shortages, the federal government enacted a number of conservation measures, both in the form of regulations and incentive-based programs. Many were aimed at reducing energy use in buildings and residences and focused on reducing "excessive" ventilation, considered wasteful of energy. Granted, the new weathertight buildings and homes, including federally subsidized low-income housing, did save energy by holding in more of the already-heated or cooled air and reducing the influx of outside air. However, there was an unanticipated side effect – these energy efficient structures concentrated the levels of contaminants inside. The old cliche, "the solution to pollution is dilution," had been ignored by the energy conservation-obsessed Washington experts.

The result has been a 20-year-long rise in health problems as people inhaled higher levels of airborne pollutants indoors, including biological contaminants from molds, mildew, microorganisms, dust mites, and cockroaches. Best known is "sick-building syndrome" affecting workers in newer, airtight office buildings. The rise in asthma rates may be another. Although the NEJM study provides no direct evidence as to why asthma incidence and mortality have been increasing, an accompanying editorial suggests "decreased ventilation after the energy crisis in the United States in the 1970s" as one contributor.

Rather than working on real solutions to the real indoor air problems it helped create, the federal government is spending billions of dollars on one phony air scare after another. To the extent EPA and other agencies have dealt with indoor air, they have focused on spurious dangers from asbestos, radon, and the like. "Targeting of resources at the most serious concerns has been all but nonexistent," said CEI adjunct scholar Cassandra Moore, author of Haunted Housing, a compendium of exaggerated housing-related scares.

Worst of all, the EPA and environmental groups are using health hazards more likely related to indoor air pollution as a justification to tighten controls on outdoor air pollutants. Most recently, the EPA has exploited the childhood asthma increase in the campaign to enact controversial new rules lowering ambient ozone and particulate matter standards. Yet, according to the EPA's own measurements, ozone and particulate matter levels have sharply declined during the period of the asthma increase. In addition, the agency has chosen to ignore its own findings that "the major source of air pollution in our nation is not the traditional outdoor sources, such as power plants, but the inside of our homes and offices," and that "the current trend toward sealing off homes to conserve energy may have serious health consequences." The NEJM study provides further support for what EPA knew already – the childhood asthma rise is far more plausibly linked to indoor air contaminants than outdoor ones.

This has not stopped EPA Administrator Carol Browner from shamelessly making maudlin pleas to save the asthmatic children from the ozone and particulate matter "threat," or environmental groups from trotting out young asthmatics for use as props in press conferences supporting the proposed rules. Such emotional arguments are necessary because these new rules can't withstand objective scrutiny. In fact, several sources within the Clinton Administration have admitted that they will impose high costs and yield minimal benefits. The President's Council of Economic Advisors conceded that EPA's analysis of the new rules "understates the true costs of stricter standards by orders of magnitude," and that "the incremental health-risk reduction for more stringent standards is small." The Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Transportation, and Treasury raised similar concerns.

Thus, EPA's cynical use of asthmatic kids is an understandable diversion. In truth, the new rules' biggest impact on asthmatic children will be to squander money that could have been spent to really help them by reducing indoor air pollution, providing better medical treatment, or even improving pest extermination.

With effort, cockroaches can be controlled. If only the same were true of federal regulations and their unintended consequences.