As reprinted in Moore, Robert L. and James D. Whitney. Microeconomic Principles in Action. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hal, 1990, pp. 108-111. This article deals with arsenic air pollution from a copper smelter in Tacoma, Washington. The article offers numerous details about various attitudes concerning polluti6n control and the benefits and costs of pollution control. The questions accompanying the article concern the optimal amount of pollution, the benefits and costs of pollution control, and the externality nature of the pollution problem. What Cost a Life? EPA Asks Tacoma


TACOMA, Washington--The bankers, the lawyers and the young professionals in expensive cowboy boots talk about this former industrial boomtown as a "New Seattle"--a place where aging smokestacks now coexist with a new convention center and antique stores that sell starched Victorian nightshirts for what was once a day's wages.

Amid the euphoria of their renaissance, however, people in Tacoma are tormented by pressure to take a public position on a grim question, a life-and-death issue that may never have been presented quite so bluntly to any community in the nation.

[A] On the one hand, they can sacrifice the jobs of 570 local residents, banish a $30-million-a-year payroll from a community that has known hard times and weaken the tax base that supports the police, the fire department and other vital services.

Or they can decide to keep all those material benefits-and let one more Tacoma citizen die of lung cancer every year.

Smelter Pours Out Arsenic

At the center of the controversy is a 90-year-old copper smelter, a battered hodgepodge of buildings that the Environmental Protection Agency says is spewing more than 310 tons of arsenic into Tacoma's air every year, spreading the known carcinogen over a circle 127: miles wide. EPA has designed a plan for cutting the airborne arsenic emissions almost in half, but this half-a-loaf plan still would leave enough arsenic pouring into the air to cause one more lung-cancer death each year than would occur normally.

Yet tougher action to curb the arsenic pollution probably would force the smelter to close, EPA specialists calculate.

The question for Tacoma is whether it would rather cut the pollution in half, keep the plant open--and suffer one more cancer death each year--or demand further pollution controls and risk losing the smelter's payroll.

Trade-offs between economic benefits and greater health or safety are made all the time in everyday life, of course; automobiles could be made virtually crash-proof, for instance, but they would be prohibitively expensive. But the decisions on such questions usually are made indirectly--implicitly instead of explicitly.

Confrontation Deliberate

What sets the Tacoma situation apart is that the federal government has called upon the people most immediately affected to state explicitly and publicly how safe they want to be. William D. Ruckelshaus, the new administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, deliberately created the confrontation as a way of focusing national attention on the interplay between costs and benefits that is involved in cleaning up the environment.

And he is not surprised that many in Tacoma are confused, even angry at being asked to state a preference.

"Listen, I know people don't like these kinds of decisions," Ruckelshaus said in an interview with The Times. "Welcome to the world of regulation. People have demanded to be involved and now I have involved them and they say: 'Don't ask that question.'

"What's the alternative? Don't involve them? Then you're accused of doing something nefarious.

"My view is that these are the kinds of tough, balancing questions that we're involved in here in this country in trying to regulate all kinds of hazardous sub-

stances. I don't like these questions either, but the societal issue is what risks are we willing to take and for what benefits?"

Taking the Community's Pulse

Legally, Ruckelshaus himself must make the final decision by early next year on how much abatement to demand from Tacoma's smelter, which is run by ASARCO Inc., a major national smelting firm. But he is presenting the issue directly to the community through four workshops in the weeks ahead, followed by a hearing scheduled Nov. 2.

Beside the difficulties of explaining this issue, EPA officials are faced with an even tougher task of taking the community's pulse. Do you poll the community, counting on a random sample? Do you count the pros and cons at the massive hearing that could run to two days or more? One EPA official has suggested a postcard vote.

"We just don't know yet how we are going to do this," said Robert Jacobson, EPA press spokesman in Seattle.

Already, the debate has stirred strong feelings. Some critics of Ruckelshaus' approach challenge EPA's analysis and statistics. Others recoil at the thought of putting a price on a neighbor's job, or worse, a friend's life. Still others bridle at being asked to consider such a difficult, anguishing philosophical question at all; that's the government's job, they say.

No Consensus

And on the central question, there so far is no consensus on what to do about the airborne arsenic, which spreads in a circle that extends from a scorched, desert-like area near the smelter's smokestack to the lush forests of Vashon and Maury islands across the bay, overland to golf courses dampened to a blue-green by the eternal rainfall, and, ironically, even over a new, multi-million-dollar downtown development financed by a subsidiary of Ruckelshaus' old employer, Weyerhaeuser Inc.

[B] "Some of us don't understand why EPA is doing this," said Linda Tanz, who is active on environmental issues for the Tacoma League of Women Voters. "EPA came in recently and found that our drinking water was contaminated and just cleaned it up, saying they'd find out why later. Now, why aren't they just cleaning this mess up instead of asking people how much cancer they would like to have? It's a very confusing, difficult issue."

Charlie Davis, a 49-year-old contractor from the small community of Fife, downwind from the smelter, said he and his wife are tired of not raising vegetables because of the arsenic fallout and they are unhappy about the metallic taste in their mouths some days when the wind shifts in their direction.

But Davis has a hard time understanding why his community is deciding something that engineers and government officials are appointed and elected to decide. "They're the experts, aren't they? We don't want extra cancer, but I also hate to see those people lose their jobs. It looks to me like they should be able to catch some of that arsenic and use it."

Some Doubt Hazard

Some Tacomans simply deny that arsenic poses any hazard at all. "I don't feel there's an arsenic problem. It's all mass hysteria," said Loretta Prettyman, the town clerk in Ruston, the half-mile square community where the ASARCO smelter provides the most jobs and a hefty tax base.

"Arsenic doesn't cause cancer. Nothing about it causes cancer. We've had so much flak over the years about the big, bad smelter that we just turn it off."

The balancing of risks and benefits is a controversial political issue when it involves health matters, but experts in the fledgling field of "risk assessment" say that some Americans are beginning to understand that there is no such thing as a risk-free world. In a recent discussion of the subject, the Journal of the American Medical Assn. noted that people voluntarily assume risks all the time--ranging from the risk of smoking 20 cigarettes a day, which causes one death per 200 smokers a year, to the risk of driving a car, which brings one death per 5,900 drivers a year, to the risk of riding motorcycles, a much more dangerous activity that causes one death per 50 riders a year.

But the same people feel differently about community risks, especially risks that can be fixed--such as hazardous wastes that can be removed with enough money and time or a bridge that should be shored up with community taxes.

Accountability an Issue

As Walter R. Lynn, director of the Program on Science, Technology and Society at Cornell University, said, "People don't mind being accountable for the safety of decisions that they make themselves, but they may want absolute safety in situations where they feel that someone else is imposing a risk on them that they don't want to bear."

"In the past, politicians and some judges have said that human life is beyond all price and that sounds fine," said William H. Lowrance, author of a 1976 book on the subject called "Of Acceptable Risk."

"Vaccines and auto safety devices, medical procedures and airplane landing systems do have a price. It's not that we're paying for life--you could make autos with incredibly low risks that cost $100,000 each," Lowrance said. "In the end, we compare protection measures. We argue whether it's worth putting more money into an airport for even lower risks or whether to spend

that same money on a new vaccine or reduction of acid rain."

Lowrance argued at the Royal College of Physicians in London last spring that science has now progressed to the point that often "we know enough to 'worry' but not enough to know how much to worry .... Scientific knowledge has progressed enormously and we even have the luxury of going around searching for possible trouble."

Such a "luxury" can be compared with tougher times, at the turn of the century, when most farmers used a compound called "Paris green" a harsh, poisonous chemical that killed animals and sometimes people along with agricultural pests.

In Tacoma, specifically, the smelter as it is now operating--without any new equipment to cut down arsenic emissions--is causing about four more lung cancer deaths each year than would be normal in a population of the area's size, according to EPA statisticians. What is proposed is the installation of massive hoods to reduce the amount of arsenic escaping from the smelters' two huge vats of molten metal. If the $4.5-million hoods are installed, EPA estimates, an average of one additional person over the normal annual death rate still would die from lung cancer in this area. Seventy-one to 94 people died here annually in the 1970s from the disease. The risk of lung-cancer death in Tacoma is 20% higher than the national rate.

By shifting much of the psychological burden to the community for what is legally his own decision under the Clean Air Act, Ruckelshaus is acknowledging that scientists do not have the final answers on many environmental questions.

There is almost always an argument, even about the science of an issue. For one thing, there is the "threshold" question. That is, with any particular toxic chemical or substance, is there an exposure level below which no damage will be done? Or is the substance so toxic--and the factors determining how individuals react so complex--that any level of exposure, no matter how small, always will produce some damage.

Is There a Threshold?

In the Tacoma case, EPA, the National Cancer Institute and other health organizations say there is no threshold for arsenic; even the smallest amounts of arsenic in the air would cause cancers if exposed to enough different kinds of people--all of them reacting in different ways over the years to the poison, scientists at these organizations say.

Lawrence W. Lindquist, manager of the ASARCO plant, takes the other side of this almost-classic environmental argument. He says there is a thresh-old--an exposure point below which arsenic no longer

causes health problems. He argues that "toxicity depends on concentration"--a lot of arsenic, like a lot of alcohol, is dangerous. A little bit may not hurt, may even be beneficial.

"It's hard for us to understand how we can make an informed decision and inform the people when they've got so many bad numbers," Lindquist said as he was interviewed in his stark offices near the gates of the smelting plant. "We have yet to see any scientific evidence that arsenic causes cancer. We don't see a risk-benefit problem (because) we see no discernible risk here."

EPA Study Called 'Baloney'

Dr. Samuel Milham Jr., head of the epidemiology section of the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services, said that arsenic is indeed carcinogenic, but he contends the EPA projections of possible lung cancers in the area are "baloney."

"I don't believe any of it," said Milham, who added that he has done a "ton of studies" on the Tacoma community and has found no evidence of any increase in lung cancers because of the smelter.

[C] Milham said that studies very clearly show that workers can get cancer from exposure to high levels of arsenic on the job and a study of ASARCO retirees showed that eight times as many died of lung cancer as the normal rate for such deaths in any community.

"But we have been looking for extra lung cancers in the community (among those who do not work at the smelter) and we haven't found them. Nothing," he said.

After the residents of the Tacoma area near Mil-ham at the Nov. 2 hearing, they will then hear the other side from Dana Davoli, an environmental scientist with EPA in Seattle.

"We haven't shown which people are dying in the community, but that doesn't mean they aren't," Davoli said. "This is a projection based on the best health information we know; we can't wait for dead bodies. If we could document the increase in lung cancers, it would already be too late. It would be an epidemic."

The bankers and businessmen in the community--who kicked off a $1.6-million "New Beginnings" ad campaign to bring new business to Tacoma the day Ruckelshaus announced the cancer-versus-jobs dilemma-are hoping that the increasingly strident debate in their city will not be bad for business.

James K. Anderson, president of Pacific First Federal Savings Bank, said that he and other businessmen worry that "it will become an emotional issue so that all the true issues here don't get aired."

He added that even though publicity about the smelter may have hurt the "New Beginnings" project by making some businessmen wary of bringing their

families to Tacoma, a quick, emotional decision that re-suits in the closing of ASARCO could also hurt the "business climate" of the community.

"It's a two-edged sword. There's also a lot of concern whether this community would treat a member of the business establishment fairly," Anderson said.

Motives Questioned

Brian Baird, president of Tacomans for a Healthy Environment, worries that it is all an effort by Ruckelshaus and his former business associates to get the environmentalists to take the blame for clearing the way for newer, cleaner industries so people will no longer joke, as they have in the past, about "the aroma of Tacoma."

"It would be real nice for those guys if the environmentalists get out the smelter and they take the heat for cleaning up Tacoma's image," Baird said.

However, Ruckelshaus said that the choice of Tacoma as the first big battleground on risk analysis was "coincidental." He added that even though he was an executive vice president for Weyerhaeuser before coming to EPA, he has not heard from Weyerhaeuser officials on the issue. He called such contacts "the kind of input I don't need from the community." And in spite of the fact that a subsidiary of Weyerhaeuser, Community Development Corp., is spending $100 million to redevelop parts of the Tacoma downtown, Ruckelshaus sees no reason why he cannot make the final decision on the smelter question.

"I have no sense at all that I am not completely objective about this decision," he said.

Indeed, even complete objectivity may not be enough for a community that is becoming increasingly involved in the question. The Bellevue Washington Journal demanded in an editorial: "Who speaks for the guy with lung cancer? Who will teach his children to fish or buy funeral bouquets in gratitude for his sacrifice on behalf of 'all of us here in the smelter'?"

As the argument in the community becomes more complex and people begin to understand what is being weighed in the balance, many feel more and more strongly that the decision should not be theirs. It belongs to the experts, but to experts people can trust.

"The most natural first reaction from people would be--why do I have to decide?" said Lester B. Lave, professor of economics and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. "Until fairly recently, we had this impulse as a society to trust such matters to the experts. We would believe them, by and large--the experts on nuclear power, chemical industry, who told us things were safe. But in this last generation, experts say it is safe and we say 'I don't believe you.'"

"In the end, we may have to come back to trust the experts, because for most people these hard choices are too painful. If somebody close by got lung cancer, we would wonder if we caused it. Nobody likes to have on their conscience that they allowed two or three more lung-cancer deaths in their community."

As Lave puts it: "Ultimately, if we don't trust the experts, then we have to make the decision. That's what is happening here."

Los Angeles Times, August 13, 1983. Copyright, 1983, Los Angeles Times. Reprinted by permission.


    1. Consider passage B:
    a. How would you respond to Linda Tanz's question?
    b. How much pollution should we tolerate? Explain briefly.

    2. In a diagram with the quantity of arsenic pollu-tion on the horizontal axis, depict both the mar-ginal cost of the pollution damage to Tacoma's residents and the copper smelter's marginal cost of reducing pollution (or, equivalently, the smelter's marginal benefit from being allowed to pollute). Assume that the pollution costs are an externality from the perspective of the cop-per smelter. Use your diagram to indicate
    a. The initial level of Tacoma's arsenic air pollution
    b. The level of pollution if the smelter is shut down
    c. The efficient level of pollution

    3. Based on evidence from the article, if Tacoma's arsenic air pollution is reduced:
    a. What types of benefits will result?
    b. What types of costs might result?

    4. Select the best answer to the following question and briefly support your choice: In passage A, the "$30 million-a-year" cost (due to lost jobs and payroll) of a shutdown of Tacoma's copper smelter
    a. Overstates the true economic cost of the shutdown.
    b. Understates the true economic cost of the shutdown.
    c. Correctly states the true economic cost of the shutdown.

    5. Consider passage C: If Dr. Milham is correct, then is it possible to argue that the health risk is not an externality problem? Why or why not?