TCS Daily

American Lung Association Fails with Its Air Quality Report Card

By Kenneth Green - May 9, 2001 12:00 AM

What do the rat-catchers do when there are less and less rats to catch? Why, they make the remaining rats look bigger and nastier, of course! At least, that seems to be the philosophy of the American Lung Association.

Despite massive improvements in the nation's air quality, the American Lung Association's (ALA) latest report "State of the Air 2001" goes to significant lengths to make the remaining problems seem larger than ever.

Just to put things in context, actual measurements show that air pollution levels have dropped precipitously in the past 30 years in virtually every urban center in the United States. As researchers working for the Pacific Research Institute have shown, from 1976-1998, Sulfur dioxides have dropped nearly 65%; Nitrogen Oxides (an ozone precursor chemical) have dropped by 38%; Carbon monoxide has dropped by 67%; particulate matter (soot) has dropped by 26%; Ozone has dropped by 28%, and lead levels in the air have dropped by over 97%.

The number of days with "unhealthful" air quality readings (according to an Air Quality Index used by the Environmental Protection Agency) has also declined sharply in recent years. Los Angeles dropped from 173 "unhealthful" air days in 1990 to only 18 in the year 2000. Houston dropped from 54 unhealthful air days to 23 in that same time, while Atlanta dropped from 42 days to 8. The simple, physical reality of air pollution - as actually measured, not modeled, or estimated by computers - is that things are getting dramatically better.

And yet, to listen to the American Lung Association, the news is terribly gloomy. "Many more Americans are breathing dirty air, as the outdoor air quality in nearly 400 U.S. counties has received an "F" for ozone air pollution (smog) - a fifteen percent increase from statistics released in May 2000," says the ALA. Grading regions on a scale from A-F, the ALA claims that Americans living in areas that received an "F" increased by more than 9 million compared with last year's report-from 132 million to more than 141 million. "Without a doubt," says ALA's CEO John Garrison, "Americans' health remains threatened by air pollution."

So how is it that Americans can be exposed to less and less actual pollution, while the ALA says that things are getting worse and worse? As Joel Schwartz, an environmental policy analyst with Reason Public Policy Institute shows, the ALA report dramatically inflates both the claimed exposures and risks people face from air pollution.

First, Schwartz points out, the ALA counted the entire population of a county as being exposed to dangerous pollution levels even if only one air pollution sensor in the county registered a high reading. Yet only the people living quite close to such a high-registering sensor would actually be exposed to significantly elevated air pollution levels. As Schwartz points out, in Los Angeles, during both 1999 and 2000, fully one-third of the sensors were under the level that the ALA counted as hazardous, but the six or seven million people living in those areas were counted in with the rest as being exposed to dangerous levels of air pollution.

Schwartz points out that the ALA also overstates the risk faced by the people who actually are exposed to elevated air pollution levels, even above the federal health standard. The federal standard, Schwartz explains, was not set to protect the average person from air pollution harm, but was set to protect the most sensitive of individuals, those with lung disorders and previously existing problems. The majority of people exposed to air pollution slightly above the federal standard are unlikely to even notice it, much less suffer any health problems, leaving 60 percent of the people miscounted by the ALA as being "threatened by air pollution."

Finally, Schwartz documents other flaws in the ALA research methods, including this whopper: The ALA used a grading system that would give an area low marks even if it met the EPA's newest, tightest air pollution standards. That's right, an area in full compliance with the toughest of America's air pollution laws can still receive a failing grade from the American Lung Association, which strongly supported the EPA standards when they were proposed in 1997. "In the ALA grading system," Schwartz observes, "counties with no pollution violations get a grade of A, and those that average 3.3 or more days per year above the ozone standard get a grade of F. This lumps Osceola, Florida, averaging 3.3 ozone violations per year, with Houston, which averages 61.5 violations per year." Under EPA rules, it takes 12 violations over three years for a county to be considered in violation of the health standard.

Nobody wants to breathe dangerously polluted air, nor have others breathe it. Public opinion polls show that most Americans consider themselves environmentalists and want a safe, and healthy environment. Given that society has finite resources with which to pursue safety, health, and environmental quality, prioritization is important to maximize the benefits we receive for the resources we use.

Though the intentions of those at the ALA are undoubtedly good, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that zeal overrode scientific rigor in the latest ALA report. Rather than reporting the reality, which is that ever-smaller numbers of people are exposed to harmful levels of air pollution, the ALA report uses methods that stand truth on its head, claiming exactly the opposite. Basing policy on reports such as ALA's "State of the Air 2001" could only lead to misprioritizing resources and under-investment in combating serious risks, leaving more people at risk of environmental harm, not less.

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