There has been nothing like the devastation asbestos has brought to our lives and the problems it has caused for our judicial system. Banning asbestos was a feat even our own government could not accomplish, mainly because the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) fell short when it came to explaining the long-term benefits of a complete ban back in 1989.
There are three main reasons why the EPA failed to put an end to asbestos use:
1. A Weak Cost-Benefit Analysis
When the EPA argued that asbestos should be banned in the United States, it performed a cost-benefit analysis to support its case. But in the court’s eyes, the cost of the ban outweighed its benefits. As it turned out, asbestos victims weren’t worth the upfront costs of eliminating mesothelioma cancer and other asbestos-related illnesses from our future.
This troubled many because we make similar investments all the time. Take firefighters for instance. One of the reasons we pay taxes is because we all want firefighters around. After all, firefighters save lives.
But to build this safety network costs money.
The costs of firefighter salaries, trucks and equipment all add up, but the investment is worth it in the long run. Countless lives are saved when they rescue people from burning buildings and prevent fires from spreading uncontrollably.
All these costs depend on our financial resources, which are limited, to prevent unnecessary deaths or injuries. The same applies to banning asbestos, so why did the court decide a ban wasn’t worth it?
2. Severely Underestimated Benefits
Some people may ask, “How much should we pay to save one life?” This can be an awkward question because it seems to ask us to put a value on an actual life, which is absurd. We can all agree that an actual life is priceless, but the EPA had to come up with a dollar figure to use in its cost-benefit analysis. This was known as the value of a statistical life (VSL).
When using this term, the EPA is not comparing the value of one life to another. It is not evaluating what you provide for your family or community, or reflecting how much people care about you. The VSL tries to estimate what society is willing to pay to avoid the risk of injury or death.
This concept wasn’t well defined until legal problems with the ban led to real studies in the 1990s. While the EPA was building its case against asbestos, the White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) assigned a value of $1 million to each life. How did they come up with this VSL? It was completely arbitrary since no real studies were done at the time.
3. Discounting a Human Life
Since asbestos-related diseases like mesothelioma have such a long latency period, the court would not recognize the value of a saved life until a diagnosis was made. This meant that the benefit of saving a life was only realized 40 years later, and at a significantly lower worth.
The EPA discounted the VSL at a rate of 3% a year.
Back in 1985, the OMB forced the EPA to withdraw a similar asbestos ban proposal. Taking the latency of asbestos illnesses into account, the $1,000,000 VSL was discounted to about $22,000.
The U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce described this drastic discounting as ”morally repugnant.” The implications of discounting the VSL like a monetizable asset are dehumanizing. The lives that could have been saved were not considered with the moral gravity we associate with saving someone today.
The government tries to protect its citizens by deciding if the cost-benefit of saving a human life is worthwhile. This is a fundamental issue in resolving how to keep people safe. There is a flaw with putting too much weight into economic and financial analysis in deciding what is good for the nation and what is right.
Dr. Robert Lind, a distinguished economist at Cornell University, states that “benefit-cost analysis need not and cannot provide precise answers to policy questions. Rather it is a procedure that can provide a crude but highly useful picture of the relative merits of alternative policies.”
So a cost-benefit analysis can only tell you the relationship between the cost and benefit. Basically, can we afford to avoid this harm?
Overall, the EPA’s argument for the 1989 asbestos ban did not completely capture the benefits the policy. The EPA estimated that it would only save 202 or 148 lives depending on the discounting rate used, when in reality thousands of people a year are diagnosed with mesothelioma. Even more are suffering from asbestos-related illnesses.