To the EPA, an American life is worth less today

Feeling like a million bucks? Maybe not so much after reading this. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lowered the value of a “statistical life” by nearly a million dollars this past May. Five years ago, your typical American was worth $7.8 million, according to the agency. Now, the EPA puts human value at just $6.9 ...

594096_080711_EPA_logo5.gif
594096_080711_EPA_logo5.gif

Feeling like a million bucks? Maybe not so much after reading this. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lowered the value of a "statistical life" by nearly a million dollars this past May. Five years ago, your typical American was worth $7.8 million, according to the agency. Now, the EPA puts human value at just $6.9 million per person, based on what it says are "improved" calculations from payroll statistics and opinion surveys.

That lower number is a low blow, and not just to Americans' self-esteem. Government agencies weigh the costs versus the lifesaving benefits of a rule when they make policies, meaning that a lower-valued human life could make certain regulations seem less urgent (like those on pollution, for instance). Here's a scenario that might result:

A hypothetical regulation that costs $18 billion to enforce but will prevent 2,500 deaths. At $7.8 million per person (the old figure), the lifesaving benefits outweigh the costs. But at $6.9 million per person, the rule costs more than the lives it saves, so it may not be adopted.

Feeling like a million bucks? Maybe not so much after reading this. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lowered the value of a “statistical life” by nearly a million dollars this past May. Five years ago, your typical American was worth $7.8 million, according to the agency. Now, the EPA puts human value at just $6.9 million per person, based on what it says are “improved” calculations from payroll statistics and opinion surveys.

That lower number is a low blow, and not just to Americans’ self-esteem. Government agencies weigh the costs versus the lifesaving benefits of a rule when they make policies, meaning that a lower-valued human life could make certain regulations seem less urgent (like those on pollution, for instance). Here’s a scenario that might result:

A hypothetical regulation that costs $18 billion to enforce but will prevent 2,500 deaths. At $7.8 million per person (the old figure), the lifesaving benefits outweigh the costs. But at $6.9 million per person, the rule costs more than the lives it saves, so it may not be adopted.

The EPA says it doesn’t use data based on a person’s earning capacity or potential societal contributions — rather, it bases the figure on what people will pay to avoid “certain risks,” and on the added amounts employers pay workers to take on those risks. The new number came from the EPA’s decision to “split the difference” of two studies that looked at those factors.

Some think the whole revaluation is a joke. Said Grainger Morgan, chairman of the EPA’s Science Advisory Board:

This sort of number-crunching is basically numerology… This is not a scientific issue.”

Others accuse the Bush administration of “cooking the books” to avoid the passage of tougher environmental regulations.

Still, the EPA remains the government agency that places the highest value on life, despite pressure to bring its figure in line with that of other agencies, such as the Department of Labor or Department of Transportation (which recently raised its value to $6 million per human life).

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