EPA Documents Show VW Cheating Posed No Threat to Public Health

Patrick Pleul/AFP/Getty Images
Patrick Pleul/AFP/Getty Images

Newly obtained documents spotlight the ludicrous nature of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s persecution of Volkswagen.

Volkswagen certainly violated government rules by rigging its vehicles to activate emissions control systems only when undergoing emission testing. VW has agreed to pay an enormous $14.7 billion to settle what the EPA calls, “allegations of cheating emissions tests and deceiving customers.”

But that is hardly all there is to the story, especially since the EPA goes on to state in its press release about the settlement, “This agreement shows that EPA is committed to upholding standards to protect public health, enforce the law, and to find innovative ways to protect clean air.”

The air pollutants at issue are oxides of nitrogen (called “NOx”), including nitrogen oxide (NO) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2). EPA regulates NOx based on levels of NO2 in outdoor air measured by outdoor air monitors. Outdoor air violates the EPA standard for NOx when the amount of NO2 measured in the air exceeds 100 parts per billion (ppb) over a period of one hour.

Based on the astounding $14.7 billion settlement, one might get the impression that VW’s emissions cheating was some sort of crime against clean air and the public health. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Regardless of the actual scientific merits of the EPA’s 100 ppb NO2 standard itself, the “worst” U.S. outdoor air hasn’t violated the standard since the late 1980s. The “worst” outdoor air today is, in fact, on average about 50 percent below the EPA’s standard, that is at about 50 ppb. That’s the “worst” air. This has forced EPA to admit on its web site, “No area of the country has been found to be out of compliance with the current NO2 standards.”

While VW cheated in rigging its engines, that cheating could have had no discernible impact on air quality anywhere. According to EPA, annual emissions of NOx from all sources are currently about 16 million tons annually. In the worst case, VW’s emissions cheating possibly put only another 40,000 tons of NOx into the air annually — not even a significant digit on the 16 million-ton figure.

So what is the new EPA document and what does it show?

Several years ago, I uncovered that the EPA was conducting illegal human experiments with various air pollutants such as particulate matter, diesel exhaust, ozone and even chlorine gas. Congressional inquiry into the matter resulted a review of EPA’s experiments by the EPA inspector general; a review that validated my charges that EPA had violated federal rules for conducting scientific experiments on humans. Resulting media coverage embarrassed the agency.

Not wanting the inspector general report to be the final word, the EPA quietly asked the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to review its human experimentation program in apparent hope that the prestigious NAS would offset or paper over the inspector general’s report.

But since the NAS review was undertaken on pretty much a below the radar if not entirely covert basis, the review was only accidentally discovered by others and brought to my attention. I have since been able to obtain at least some of the documents submitted by the EPA to the NAS for its review. One of those documents describes EPA’s human experiments with NO2.

The EPA’s NO2 experiments not only finish off the notion that VW’s emissions cheating posed any sort of threat to air quality and public health, but also raise more questions about EPA’s honesty and regulatory overreach.

In an experiment called “ENDZONE,” the EPA exposed humans to 500 ppb of NO2 (5 times higher than the NO2 standard and 10 times higher than the “worst” U.S. outdoor air) for two hours (i.e., twice the length of exposure on which the outdoor air standard is based).

Not only did the EPA anticipate that no harm would occur from the exposure, as evidence of this presumption, the EPA cited earlier experiments in which humans were exposed to as much as 2,000 ppb of NO2 (i.e., 20 times higher than the EPA NO2 standard and 40 times higher than the “worst” outdoor air in the U.S.) ¾ all without harm.

So how could increased NOx emissions from VWs possibly hurt anyone? In reality, they couldn’t and didn’t.

The Clean Air empowers EPA to regulate outdoor air so as to protect the public health with an adequate margin of safety. The law requires safe air ¾ not “pure” air. That is more than adequately accomplished by the EPA’s 100 ppb regulatory standard for NO2, which we are already way below. VW’s cheating didn’t change this reality in any way.

Yes, VW broke the rules and that does merit some sort of punishment. But EPA shouldn’t get away with pretending it’s protecting public health by punishing VW. The only thing EPA is protecting is its ability to regulate excessively.

Steve Milloy publishes JunkScience.com.


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