Governmental Regulations May Cause More Deaths Than They Prevent, UB Study Finds

By Sue Wuetcher

Release Date: July 25, 1994 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Many governmental regulations designed to protect the health and safety of citizens actually cause more deaths than they prevent, a study by a University at Buffalo economist has found.

Compliance with these expensive regulations by the private sector typically reduces income -- and increases poverty -- through layoffs and/or taxes, said Govind Hariharan, UB assistant professor of managerial economics. Since poor people have shorter life spans than the rich -- due to the inability to purchase proper medical care -- these regulations often result in more deaths than are saved, he noted.

In a study published in the Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, Hariharan and co-author Kenneth Chapman, associate professor of economics at California State University at Northridge, determined that regulations costing more than $12.2 million per-life-saved are likely to kill more people through increased poverty than they save.

"Billions of dollars are spent in regulating exposure to different types of chemicals and other substances," Hariharan said. "The risk, in terms of how many days of life are saved for the average person, has been shown to be infinitesimally small. Poverty, on the other hand, has the biggest impact (of all variables) on how long people live. A decline in income -- through such factors as lost jobs -- will cause some people to die early.

"For instance, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Superfund cleanup of hazardous waste sites is estimated to cost billions of dollars, while the benefits, in life days expected to be saved, is minimal.

"Thus, such regulations that typically result in more people in poverty could kill more people than they save," he said.

The study analyzed data from the Retirement History Survey collected between 1969 and 1979 by the U.S. Census Bureau. The survey questioned approximately 11,000 males, aged 58-62 in 1969, every two years on a variety of financial, demographic and health topics.

In order to determine what the "cut-off point" should be in terms of expenditure per-life-saved, the researchers estimated the effect of a change in income -- as measured by wages, Social Security and savings -- on the age of death while controlling for initial health status.

While some studies have controlled for extreme health problems such as disabilities, the UB study was unique, Hariharan said, because it estimated a specific cut-off level for expenditure and because it controlled for initial health using general measures of self-reported health status and medical expenditures.