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AIR SCARES ARE TALL TALES

By Natalie Sirkin

Polls show that Americans consider environmental groups the most credible sources of information on the environment, and that they also trust information from regulatory agencies. Yet, these trusted sources routinely misrepresent -- Joel Schwartz

Much excellent research has been published on clean air. Joel Schwartz, who has done 30 studies, has added to it that the public has not been told it and does not believe the truth. Much of this column is based upon his lecture, “Breathing Easier About Air Quality,” given in April, 2006, at the Institute for Study of Economics and the Environment at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Missouri.

Air pollution was a problem when Seneca in 61 AD complained of “the stink, soot, and heavy air” in Rome. In London, in 1285, King Edward I created a commission to improve air quality. In the U.S., pollution has been decreasing.

Americans get their information, much exaggerated, from journalists, government regulators, environmental activists, and scientists. Exaggerations increase costs and minimize opportunities to address real risks.

Most of the U.S. meets federal air pollution standards for four pollutants, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and lead. For ozone (smog), only 10% of the ozone monitors violated EPA’s 1-hour standard in 2004, reduced from 60% in the late 70s. For particulate matter (soot), about 90% of the nation’s monitors would have violated the standard 25 years ago, but only 14% violated it by the end of 2004. What makes these improvements remarkable is the big increase in driving, use of energy, and more economic activity.

Air pollution will continue to decline. If over the next 20 years, driving increases 3% a year, total miles driven would increase about 80%, but would be offset by a 90% decrease in per-mile emissions.

Public perception of air pollution is that the air is dirty and getting dirtier--the opposite of reality. Public perception is no surprise as the public gets its information from the media, and the media from environmental organizations. Regularly, the American Lung Association’s annual State of the Ai, misinforms, giving “more fiction than fact,” says Schwartz. ALA ’s press releases are repeated by dozens of media. Example of fiction: From 1999 to 2001, said ALA , Los Angeles County had 35 days exceeding EPA’s 8-hour standard for ozone. In truth, it had zero. The monitor in the worst location registered 18 days; the average, six days.

If a single monitor in the whole county on one day exceeded the standard, and if another monitor elsewhere in the county exceeded on the next day, ALA listed two days of exceedances and gave the whole county a failing grade. And that is so even as 60% of the county met both EPA’s 1-hour and 8-hour standards. This is the way Connecticut’s exceedances and all states’ are counted.

ALA similarly misstates soot (particulate matter, PM 2.5). The federal standard is 65 micrograms per cubic meter, but ALA uses 40. ALA reported Cook County (Chicago) had 43 exceedance days from 2000-2001. In truth, it had none.

Ralph Nader’s PIRG in its Danger in the Air, which had fictionally high exceedances for all states, announced that California exceeded the 8-hour ozone standard on 130 days in 2001. In truth, half the monitoring stations had no exceedance days at all; the average location, seven.

Federal and state regulators use similar pollution-counting methods. Journalists inflate the data. The New York Times reported that metropolitan Los Angeles exceeded the 1-hour ozone standard on 68 days in 2003. In truth, the worst site registered 39 days; the average location, 10.

Next time The New York Times or The News-Times asserts that “the ozone smog in Connecticut is among the worst in the nation,” bear in mind that after the first six “dirtiest” metropolitan areas, the next ten (including Connecticut) have very small and identical exceedances. Schwartz quotes dozens of newspapers that similarly mislead.

Americans are alarmed because the news is alarming. They believe by 85% that dirty air causes serious health problems. In the Journal of the American Medical Association, two prominent health officials referred to the Children’s Health Study in California to announce that air pollution “may have” contributed to the increasing prevalence of asthma. Schwartz notes four other health professionals from around the country did the same, but none was familiar with the CHS study and none was aware of the ozone levels in his community relative to that in the Study’s high-ozone areas. The truth is that the air pollution levels were associated with a lower, not higher, risk of asthma,

EPA has ascertained that were the ozone standard further tightened, asthma patients’ visits to emergency rooms would be reduced by nearly nothing (0.04%). As with asthma, EPA has ascertained that ozone pollution has no short-term effects, yet EPA’s literature untruthfully warns that current ozone levels can lead to “serious harm.”

As with ozone, PM 2.5 has nearly no impact on health. “It remains the case that no form of ambient PM—other than viruses, bacteria, and biochemical antigens—has been shown, experimentally or clinically, to cause disease or death at concentrations remotely close to U.S. ambient levels. This lack of demonstration is not for lack of trying . . .”

A new study of 58,600 women has appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine claiming that because of PM 2.5, “breathing urban air pollution is much more deadly than previously thought,” according to The Wall Street Journal page-one story’s of 2/1/07. EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson announced he would not stiffen the 15 micrograms standard because the science is not definitive enough.

On one point we might disagree with Schwartz. The 4,000 Londoners who died in the London Fog of December, 1952, did not demonstrate that soot and sulfur dioxide can kill, because, though extremely high, they probably were not the cause of death. Hugh W. Ellsaesser, physicist and meteorologist, scrutinized the official data and concluded that the deaths were caused by the sudden onset of extremely cold weather following a long stretch of very mild weather.

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