Lung Association Distorts Air Quality Data

Published August 1, 2003

The American Lung Association’s (ALA) new study, State of the Air: 2003, gave a failing grade on air quality to more than half the nation’s counties. Its findings, while widely and uncritically reported by the popular press, are at odds with the data and more credible sources.

For example, the 2003 Index of Environmental Indicators, a joint effort of the Pacific Research Institute and American Enterprise Institute (PRI-AEI), described the improvements in air quality as “probably the greatest environmental success story of the last generation.” While the ALA report attracted most of the media attention, the PRI-AEI study seems to better reflect the truth about the nation’s air quality.

Ozone-Only Bias

The ALA’s State of the Air: 2003 focused almost entirely on ozone, only one of six so-called “criteria pollutants” regulated under the 1970 Clean Air Act. Ambient levels of the other five–sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, particulate matter, and lead–have fallen markedly, according to EPA.

Virtually the entire nation is now in compliance with federal standards for sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, and lead. Most of the nation also meets the particulate matter standard, though a more stringent new standard will pose further challenges in the years ahead. This progress, though quite noteworthy, received only passing attention by ALA.

Ambient levels of ozone, the primary constituent of smog, have fallen as well, but not as dramatically as the others. Thus, ozone offers the best target for those wishing to sound alarms. And even on ozone, ALA painted a misleadingly negative picture.

The ALA report concluded “137 million Americans … are living in counties with an unhealthy amount of ozone,” but it did so by concocting a grading scale more stringent than anything EPA uses. ALA assigned Fs to some counties in full compliance with agency smog standards, cherry-picking the highest ozone readings and giving failing grades even where the overwhelming majority of measurements were below the federally accepted threshold.

Media Takes the Bait

Dozens of local news outlets took the bait, reporting their city or county had received an air quality F. Nationally, the media coverage accepted ALA’s verdict on air as fact, and few questioned why the advocacy group’s conclusions differ from those reached by EPA and others.

Several news stories also ran with ALA’s claim that the Bush administration is making matters worse with “threats to roll back Clean Air Act provisions,” as well as assertions that current pollution levels are strongly linked to childhood asthma and pose a dire threat to the sick and elderly.

More Accurate Analysis

Though it received far less publicity, PRI-AEI’s 2003 Index of Environmental Indicators was more accurate and more informative than the biased ALA report.

The PRI-AEI chapter on air quality better summarized EPA’s data on air pollution over the past three decades and reported undeniably positive trends nowhere to be found in ALA’s report. For example, the number of times EPA’s Air Quality Index was exceeded fell by nearly 50 percent over the past decade alone.

The PRI-AEI study also countered assertions from ALA and others that increases in childhood asthma are caused primarily by air pollution. The facts show childhood asthma rates have risen at the same time air pollution levels have been falling. Globally, the air pollution/asthma association is further weakened by studies showing low asthma rates in heavily polluted nations like Mexico, China, and India, and higher rates in virtually pollution-free countries such as New Zealand.

The policy lesson of the asthma/air quality research is clear: If efforts to fight asthma are to be successful, they must not obsess over outdoor air quality, but instead should address all potential contributing factors, including such indoor air quality factors as cockroach allergens, animal dander, and dust.

Policy Implications

While the ALA report called for a host of costly new crackdowns on remaining air pollutants, the authors of the 2003 Index of Environmental Indicators conclude progress to date has been impressive and that additional “major air-quality improvements are nearly certain to be achieved over the next decade.”

In particular, the PRI-AEI report authors note, the “turnover of the auto fleet to newer vehicles with vastly lower emission rates than older cars and trucks” will almost certainly lead to continued declines in ozone and other air pollutants in the years to come. Further government-mandated air quality control measures, especially those that come at high cost, could do more public health harm than good by drawing resources away from more pressing concerns.

Unfortunately, good news is no news when it comes to the environment, and few journalists covered the PRI-AEI study. Nonetheless, it is important to assess the current state of air quality honestly and accurately if future policy decisions are to bring more benefits than costs.

Ben Lieberman is director of clean air policy with the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC. His email address is [email protected].

For more information …

The American Lung Association’s State of the Air: 2003 can be found on the Internet at

The 2003 Index of Environmental Indicators, issued jointly by the Pacific Research Institute and American Enterprise Institute, can be found online at