After cutting value of life, EPA ditching the term

Jan 21, 2011 By SETH BORENSTEIN , AP Science Writer

(AP) -- Bureaucrats are struggling with an age-old question: What is the value of our lives?

The government uses dollar amounts for lives when trying to weigh the costs and benefits of regulating such things as pollution, but it has proven politically and emotionally charged.

Now, the wants to stop putting a on American lives and use different terminology, but that's not as easy as it sounds.

The agency's first try for a replacement - a wonky "value of mortality risk" - was shot down as not quite right by its science advisory board Thursday.

The EPA proposal would also put more value on preventing cancer deaths over other causes of death, like heart attacks. That's because there's a bigger scare factor for cancer, EPA officials said. But critics say that puts a premium on touchy-feely emotions over science.

"This is highly ethical, but very dangerous," said David Ropeik, an expert in risk communications and author of the book "How Risky Is It, Really?" He said people often overestimate some risks, such as cancer, and underestimate others, such as heart disease.

For decades, the government in analyzing whether regulations make economic sense has used something called "value of a statistical life."

The so-called price tag became a political hot topic in 2002, when the Bush administration tried to reduce the value of elderly people by 38 percent compared to people under 70.

Then quietly in 2004, the EPA reduced the value of life for everyone from $7.9 million to $7 million. The Associated Press uncovered the devaluation in 2008 and the EPA's move was criticized by Democrats and ridiculed by comedians.

Soon after the Obama administration took over in 2009, the value of a statistical life was pushed back up to $7.9 million.

The EPA has proposed changing the term to "value of " and instead of using dollars for a theoretical life, regulations would be measured in "dollars per micro-risk per year." A micro-risk is one in a million.

So instead of using the value of a life at $7.9 million when calculations are made about the benefits of a regulation, it would be using figures that talk about the benefits of reducing deaths by $7.90 per micro-risk per person per year.

Under the current EPA economic calculations, people are troubled by the question of "how do you put a value on a human life," said Al McGartland, EPA's chief environmental economist.

With the new proposal, "we're not putting a value on a human life," he said.

The new method is more understandable for the public, said Lisa Heinzerling, a Georgetown University law professor who until late last year was EPA's policy chief and the architect behind the change.

When environmental economists talked about value of life, they really were trying to figure out how much people would pay to reduce individual risk of death, so this is a more accurate term, said Heinzerling, co-author of a book called "Priceless: On Knowing the Price of Everything and the Value of Nothing."

But science board members said the proposed term is clunky and confusing. They suggested "value risk reduction." Eventually, the board will make a recommendation to EPA's chief, who will make the final decision.

No matter what term is used, the EPA's proposal "doesn't change anything, it still means the same thing. No one will be fooled for long," Tufts University economist Frank Ackerman, co-author of Heinzerling's book, said in an e-mail.

The rebranding could bury key environmental decisions "in ever-deeper jargon," said Frank O'Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch and a critic of the old method.

In the proposal, the EPA is adding a 50 percent "cancer differential" to calculating death risks. This would say the risk of dying of cancer is 50 percent worse - or costlier - than the risk of dying in other ways. EPA associate environmental economics chief Nathalie Simon pointed to scientific studies, based on surveys that say people would be willing to pay more to avoid dying of cancer, when compared to other causes of death.

John Graham, the Bush administration regulation chief who proposed discounting the value of seniors, said people may say they fear cancer more, but their actions don't back that up.

In an e-mail, Graham, now dean of Indiana University's school of public and environmental affairs, questioned whether a "cancer premium" can be justified "in light of the reluctance of citizens to monitor for radon in their homes, enroll in screening programs, and eat their fruits and vegetables on a daily basis."

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More information: EPA proposal: http://tinyurl.com/epavalue

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User comments : 12

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dogbert
1.8 / 5 (5) Jan 21, 2011
We definitely need our government to place a value on our lives. [sarcasm]

The EPA is a joke, but this is not in the least funny.

While congress is debating how to reduce cost, eliminating the EPA would be a good addition to the group of things we do not need.
Corban
5 / 5 (1) Jan 21, 2011
We already put price tags on our lives. Every 100 miles I drive in a car, I am risking my safety to get to work, dates, and have a life. I could walk or take the bus, but I don't. Why? Because my mental math doesn't work out there. You know what? I'm okay with that, and I suppose so is everyone else with their decisions. People just whine when their gambling inexplicably doesn't pay off.
random
5 / 5 (1) Jan 21, 2011
We already put price tags on our lives. Every 100 miles I drive in a car, I am risking my safety to get to work, dates, and have a life. I could walk or take the bus, but I don't. Why? Because my mental math doesn't work out there. You know what? I'm okay with that, and I suppose so is everyone else with their decisions. People just whine when their gambling inexplicably doesn't pay off.


It might be useful to know the value of a human life strictly from a decision-making standpoint. Also if the government is doing a good job the value should appreciate over time, right?
dogbert
not rated yet Jan 21, 2011
Corban,
Yes, we place a value on our own lives. The problem arises when our government places their value on our lives.

Random,

No, the our government valued lives will not appreciate over time. The goverbment will devalue as we age ( or become invalid ) to set limits on medical interventions, etc. When your life is sufficiently devalued, you will be expected to die quietly -- after all, the interventions may exceed your "value".

CHollman82
1 / 5 (3) Jan 21, 2011
Why don't they use a value that indicates your current or expected contribution to society? That seems to be the best indication of your "worth"...
dogbert
3 / 5 (2) Jan 21, 2011
CHollman82,

Are you OK with your government denying you medical care or services because you have lost the capacity to produce? Are you OK if that is your parent, spouse or child?
Quantum_Conundrum
4 / 5 (4) Jan 21, 2011
Why don't they use a value that indicates your current or expected contribution to society? That seems to be the best indication of your "worth"...


See, the United States was founded on the notion that all people have a RIGHT to live. (which they don't actually attempt to provide.)

In the existing system we already pretty much let average and below average income people die anyway. Only the most wealthy people can get treatment for brain cancer or headshot wounds and survive.

Do you think Gabrielle Giffords would still be alive if she had an average income and average insurance policy? She'd have gotten minimum treatment and died that day, most likely, and nobody would have even heard her name.
CHollman82
5 / 5 (1) Jan 21, 2011
CHollman82,

Are you OK with your government denying you medical care or services because you have lost the capacity to produce? Are you OK if that is your parent, spouse or child?


no...
pauljpease
5 / 5 (1) Jan 21, 2011
We definitely need our government to place a value on our lives. [sarcasm]

The EPA is a joke, but this is not in the least funny.

While congress is debating how to reduce cost, eliminating the EPA would be a good addition to the group of things we do not need.


I'm sure you meant to say "government or corporations", right? Or is it OK for corporations (beholden to shareholders) to put a value on your life, but not the government (beholden to all citizens)? Because insurance companies put dollar values on your life all the time, and their only motivation is profit...
dogbert
1 / 5 (1) Jan 21, 2011
pauljpease,

When you buy life insurance, you put a value on your life. The insurance company projects what premium they must collect to provide the level of insurance you decided you needed.

This is in no way equivalent to your government determining what your life is worth.
Caliban
5 / 5 (2) Jan 21, 2011
pauljpease,

When you buy life insurance, you put a value on your life. The insurance company projects what premium they must collect to provide the level of insurance you decided you needed.

This is in no way equivalent to your government determining what your life is worth.


@dogbert,
You are right, but only half so. You failed to mention health insurance, which does just that- assigns a dollar value to your life.
Until just recently, Insurance companies could also assign a maximum dollar value that was way, way less than the EPA's -it was termed a "Lifetime Benefit Cap", and that, combined with the until only recently done-away-with "pre-existing condition" clause, in very real terms meant that you could easily die because your lifetime benefit was exhausted before you were cured of disease, or because the cost of continued treatment exceeded the cap.
Unless you were able to obtain Mcare/caid in time, then you were SOL.

So, ok for Corps, but not for Government?
Skeptic_Heretic
5 / 5 (1) Jan 22, 2011
CHollman82,

Are you OK with your government denying you medical care or services because you have lost the capacity to produce? Are you OK if that is your parent, spouse or child?

Are you ok with private insurance companies that you have to pay doing that now?

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