EPA Lung Cancer Study Based on Faulty Data

As Congress foams at the mouth over financial fraud perpetrated on Enron shareholders and employees, it’s allowing the Environmental Protection Agency to perpetrate a much more costly fraud on all of us.

"Study Ties Pollution, Risk of Lung Cancer" proclaimed the Washington Post in a front-page, above-the-fold headline this week. "Soot particles strongly tied to lung cancer, study says" blared the New York Times. "The results are likely to influence political debate and lead to tougher regulations," reported the Wall Street Journal.

Published in the Journal of the American Medical Association March 6, the study reports fine particulate air pollution causes people living in the most heavily polluted cities to die at a 12 percent greater rate of lung cancer than people in the least polluted areas.

What’s really gasping for breath, though, is the basic science and honesty that’s been steamrolled by the EPA and its researcher henchmen.

The researchers couldn’t possibly draw the conclusion that fine particulates cause lung cancer from this study because it was only statistical in nature, not scientific. Assuming no shenanigans on the part of the researchers - a big assumption as you will soon see - the researchers only developed weak statistical correlations between air pollution levels and lung cancer rates.

Statistics is not science and these extremely marginal correlations don’t even rate as statistics.

The researchers had no data on how much fine particulate air pollution was inhaled by even one of the 500,000 study subjects. Instead the researchers simply guessed at how much fine particulates study subjects might have inhaled - more like eeny-meeny-miny-mo than science.

Not one lung cancer death in the study population was medically linked with fine particulate air pollution. The study subjects’ lung cancers could easily have been caused by smoking - about 90 percent of lung cancer occurs among smokers - or other lung cancer risk factors.

The researchers vainly tried to surmount this problem by statistically adjusting their results to account for potential lung cancer risk factors - as if you can make up for missing biological information simply by waving a statistical wand.

It’s not even clear on a biological basis that exposure to fine particulate air pollution can possibly cause lung cancer in the first place.

The story now moves from bad science to secret science.

An earlier version of this study - with the same glaring deficiencies - was published in 1995. The Clinton administration EPA used this study to propose in 1996 more stringent air pollution regulations estimated to cost the public as much as $100 billion per year - more than twice as much in one year as the vaporization of Enron’s market value.

Unsure of the quality of the data underlying the 1995 study and worried about the staggering cost estimates and uncertain health benefits of the proposed rules, Congress asked the EPA and the researchers to provide the data to independent scientists for another look.

After all, independent replication of results is a hallmark of science and the study was funded with taxpayer dollars.

Shockingly, the EPA and the researchers flatly refused, saying there was no purpose in any re-analysis. More shockingly, Congress cowered and didn’t press the matter. The data remain to this day secreted away from public scrutiny.

The rogue EPA issued the rules in 1997 and successfully defended them before the Supreme Court in 2001 - without having to address the scientific or data problems. The agency is now working on imposing the rules - and their costs - on the public.

The new study conveniently comes along just as the Bush administration considers relaxing other costly Clinton administration actions of dubious benefit against aging coal-fired power plants and refineries that emit fine particulate matter into the air.

The study was funded by the EPA - that is, taxpayers - and conducted by the same gang who refused to turn the 1995 study data over to Congress. Oh, and did I mention that the new study uses much of the same data as the 1995 study? 

"It’s déjà vu all over again," as Yogi Berra might say.

The new study will doubtlessly be used by the EPA as evidence that air pollution regulations need to be made more stringent - even before the dubious 1997 rules have been fully implemented and their results observed.

Congress should stop wasting time and resources grandstanding on Enron. That matter can be left to our civil and criminal courts, Securities and Exchange Commission and the financial markets - all of which are much more capable than Congress of preventing future Enrons.

What really needs to be investigated and addressed - something only Congress can undertake - is EPA-ron’s costly and likely fraudulent hidden transactions.

Steven Milloy is the publisher of JunkScience.com , an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and the author of Junk Science Judo: Self-defense Against Health Scares and Scams (Cato Institute, 2001).

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