American Lung Association’s 2007 Report Distorts Air Quality Facts

Published July 1, 2007

Editor’s note: This article is the first in a two-part series by Joel Schwartz regarding the American Lung Association’s State of the Air 2007 report, released on May 1.

If only one child in a class fails a test, should the teacher assign failing grades to everyone? That’s exactly how the American Lung Association (ALA) assigns air quality grades to America’s cities and counties in its annual State of the Air report, released on May 1.

For example, even though 99 percent of San Diegans live and work in areas that comply with the federal eight-hour ozone standard, State of the Air 2007 includes all 3 million San Diego County residents in its “dirty air” tally.

Even in Los Angeles County, once America’s “smog capital,” 60 percent of the 10 million residents live in areas that comply with the eight-hour ozone standard. But ALA counts all 10 million as breathing dirty air.

Great Exaggerations

Similarly, ALA claims Harris County (Houston) averaged 38 days per year exceeding the eight-hour ozone standard in 2003-05. But a look at the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) ozone monitoring data shows the county’s 14 monitors ranged from two to 15 exceedance days per year.

EPA Data

Thus even for the most polluted site in Houston, ALA overstated ozone violations by more than double. For the average Houston location (eight exceedance days per year), ALA exaggerated by nearly a factor of five.

ALA inflates particulate air pollution as well. State of the Air 2007 claims Allegheny County (the Pittsburgh metro area) had the second worst fine particulate (PM2.5) pollution in the nation during 2003-05, averaging 20.8 micrograms per cubic meter (µg/m3). But this value applies only to the town of Liberty, in the meteorologically isolated Mon Valley.

The next worst location in Allegheny County averaged a substantially lower 16.5 µg/m3. In fact, half the monitors in the county complied with EPA’s 15 µg/m3 annual standard for PM2.5. Nevertheless, based solely on the localized data from Liberty, ALA claims the entire Pittsburgh metro area has the second worst PM2.5 levels in the nation.

Fictional Trends

ALA’s claims about air pollution trends are equally fictional. State of the Air 2007 claims PM2.5 pollution is on the rise. And indeed, PM2.5 rose in 2005 after dropping steadily each year from 1999 to 2004.

But national PM2.5 data for 2006 were already available by the time ALA released State of the Air 2007 on May 1. These data show 2005 was an anomaly, as PM2.5 hit a new record low in 2006. For Allegheny County in particular, PM2.5 in 2006 was more than 10 percent below the average for 2003-05.

Power Plant Myths

Conveniently, ALA provides a fictional “explanation” of the fictional rise in PM2.5: “power plants are likely the source of much of the increase in particle pollution in the eastern United States, driven by increased electricity production during the period.”

Note how ALA is careful never to claim explicitly that power plant pollution increased, but merely that electricity production increased. The reader is led to assume that more electricity production means more power plant air pollution and therefore higher PM2.5 levels. Actually, power plant sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions–the source of the sulfate component of PM2.5–remained unchanged during the year when ALA claimed they were increasing.

The figure accompanying this article compares average PM2.5 levels and power plant SO2 emissions for the eastern half of the United States since 1994. (National PM2.5 monitoring didn’t begin until 1999.) Note the unique jump in PM2.5 in 2005, with steady declines both before and after. Also note that under existing law SO2 emissions must decline another 70 percent over the next several years, ensuring far more PM2.5 improvement in the future.

Scare Tactics

“How polluted is the air you, your family, and neighbors are breathing in your community?” begins an email I recently received from the ALA. The email announced the release of State of the Air 2007 and invited readers to type in their ZIP code to find out their local air quality. I decided to type in a few ZIP codes for Sacramento County, which I have frequently studied, to find out what information ALA would provide.

It turned out that no matter what the ZIP code, the ALA reported the exact same ozone and particulate pollution information.

I knew this information had to be wrong, because pollution levels vary widely around Sacramento County and most other counties in the nation. ALA claims Sac County had 63 ozone exceedance days from 2002-05. But according to the actual monitoring data, Folsom has the worst ozone, with 52 exceedance days. Downtown Sacramento had only two ozone exceedance days in 2002-05, or less than one-thirtieth of ALA’s claim.

ALA claims to be telling Americans about air quality where they live. But for any given county, no matter what ZIP code you type into ALA’s database, it always returns the same drastically inflated result.

Historically Clean Air

National polls routinely show most Americans believe air quality has been steady or declining. In reality, the nation’s air quality has been steadily improving for decades and has never been better.

The public believes otherwise because most of the information they receive on the environment comes from environmental activist groups and government regulators–interest groups who need to keep us scared in order to maintain their powers and budgets.

No matter how clean the air is, they continue to find ways to make it seem we’ve made little progress and that things will only worsen without aggressive new regulatory programs.

No Health Concerns

Even without the activists’ exaggerations, millions of Americans do live in areas that violate one or more federal air pollution health standards.

But that’s not actually a cause for concern, either. In the next issue of Environment & Climate News, I’ll show how the air pollution fear industry not only exaggerates pollution levels but also exaggerates the harm from any given level of pollution.

In reality, the underlying health research shows our air is already safe to breathe and our current, historically low air pollution is at worst a minor factor in people’s health.

Joel Schwartz ([email protected]) is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

For more information …

State of the Air 2007, American Lung Association, May 1, 2007,