The Bush administration is telling agencies that they should consider whether a senior citizen’s life has a different value than that of the rest of the population when calculating the worth of environmental programs.

The move, which would be part of the cost-benefit analysis done while weighing the worth of new environmental programs against the cost, has some seniors and environmental groups accusing the administration of discrimination.

Opponents said the practice could result in a lesser value being placed on an initiative’s benefit to seniors compared to the rest of the population because they may have fewer years to live.

The White House Office of Management and Budget, which has directed the EPA and other regulatory agencies to use the practice in tandem with the traditional process of calculating benefits regardless of age, says it is only trying to find better ways to assess new initiatives.

Officials say considering the fewer years of life that older people have should be part of the cost-benefit equation to avoid having regulations running rampant. In some cases, they contend the practice could actually increase the value that the government places on the lives of seniors.

Economic analysts say there is no consensus on how to calculate the worth of a program against the age of those who would be most affected. To some, it’s akin to trying to determine the value of a life.
It can be a very complicated process.

Researchers believe, for instance, that older Americans run a higher risk of developing chronic diseases that could be caused by air pollution, pesticides or other contaminants. A new initiative, therefore, may be worth more to senior citizens for the years they have left.

But if an initiative affects mostly seniors, its benefit could be considered limited because of their ages and natural mortality rates. Meanwhile, younger people could still be paying for it.

So should everyone have to pay more to protect “the people who might be most at risk for this kind of pollution?” asked James Hammitt, a professor of economics and decision science at Harvard. “It’s a very moral question.”

Traditionally, when agencies such as the EPA conduct cost-benefit analyses, they calculate the number of lives saved, without regard for age, on the benefit side of the equation.

Some regulatory agencies, though, such as the Food and Drug Administration, factor in the number of years of life saved when making decisions.

The OMB’s regulatory chief, John Graham, wants federal agencies to use both methods, which he says will provide a better perspective on an initiative’s worth.

“Each method has fairness, advantages and disadvantages—and thus both methods should be presented to policy makers,” Graham said.

In some cases, that could increase the value of older people. In a recent EPA proposal to cut diesel exhaust from off-road engines, the life of a person under 65 was valued at $172,000 a year, compared to $434,000 for people 65 and older. “It recognizes that the elderly have precious few life-years remaining,” Graham said.

Environmentalists say the method still values seniors less because it counts the per-year value for fewer years. The overall worth of a program, then, can be calculated as being less beneficial, giving the government an argument for not going through with it.

As an example, they point to an EPA cost-benefit analysis used on a proposal to cut pollution from snowmobiles in national parks. When the benefit to a person over age 70 was cut by one-third, the worth of the program dipped considerably.

The proposal was ultimately dropped, said Heather Sage, outreach coordinator for Citizens for Pennsylvania’s Future. She accused the Bush administration of favoring industries that pollute with watered-down environmental initiatives, citing a new proposal on reducing power plant emissions.

Many people, she said, believe the proposal “would be a major setback, given that seniors are a susceptible population to soot and particulates.”

For Jo Ann Evansgardner, an environmental activist in Pittsburgh, the government’s new way of considering things is ludicrous. She says life at age 78—which she is—should be valued the same as an infant’s first year. “How can they say my life is less valuable than an infant’s? It’s like they’re playing god, to claim they can put a dollar value on me that differs from someone else.”