For decades, Americans have relied on the American Lung Association (ALA) for reliable information on respiratory health. But in its recent "State of the Air 2002" report, ALA vastly exaggerates air pollution levels and misleads people into believing air pollution is getting worse, when in fact it has been improving for at least twenty years.
How did one of the nation's foremost public health charities get the numbers so wrong? Rather than basing its study on actual air pollution levels and data on who is actually harmed by a given level and frequency of air pollution, ALA faked the numbers. Here's how:
ALA graded counties' air pollution on an A through F scale based on levels of ozone, the main component of smog. But ALA's air pollution grading system has little relation to actual health risk, counting relatively low pollution levels as posing a major threat, and giving failing grades even to areas with little or no air pollution.
The Environmental Protection Agency has two health standards for ozone. The current standard, known as the "one-hour standard," has been in effect since 1979 and is stringent enough to protect most people from harm. EPA is now in the process of implementing a more stringent ozone standard known as the "eight-hour standard," intended to protect even the most pollution-sensitive people. But to give you an idea of how little difference there is between the current standard and the new one in terms of health risk, EPA itself estimates that reducing ozone levels from the current standard to the new standard would reduce emergency room visits for asthma by 0.6%.
Nevertheless, even EPA's eight-hour standard wasn't good enough for ALA. All counties that ALA graded B, C, or D, and even some graded F, satisfy both of EPA's ozone health standards. ALA's grading system is kind of like testing high school students using college-level questions and then failing them even if they answer 99% of the questions correctly.
ALA then inflated the numbers even further by applying a bit of statistical sleight-of-hand to EPA's original ozone monitoring data. Many counties monitor ozone at several locations because pollution levels usually vary from place to place. Taking Los Angeles County as an example, ozone could be high one day in Glendora and then high the next day in Santa Clarita, fifty miles away. In this situation, ALA counts two bad-air days for the entire county, even though people in Glendora and Santa Clarita each experienced only one such day, and the other eight million people in the county enjoyed clean air on both days.
ALA thus managed to claim Los Angeles County averages thirty-seven bad air days per year, even though a direct inspection of the EPA monitoring data shows that the average L.A. County location had ten days of elevated ozone per year almost 75% less than ALA claims. Indeed, even based on ALA's ridiculous grading standard, Long Beach, West Los Angeles, Hawthorne, and Lynwood the most densely populated areas of the county had clean air every day of the year. Glendora, with the worst air in L.A. County, failed the ALA standard 22 times per year and that's still 40% less than ALA would have us believe. ALA cooked the books for dozens of other populous regions, including Chicago, San Diego, Phoenix, and Houston, vastly exaggerating the pollution levels experienced by tens of millions of Americans.
As if these shortcomings weren't enough, ALA's analysis also uses outdated data. ALA used pollution data from 1998 to 2000, even though data from 2001 are available. Since air pollution has been declining in many areas, using older data makes air pollution look higher than current actual levels. For example, as noted above, the average L.A. County location averaged ten elevated ozone days per year from 1998 to 2000. But in 2001 that number dropped 40%, down to six elevated ozone days for the year.
Between the phony grading system, "ozone inflation," and old data, ALA was able to claim "more than 142 million Americans live in areas where the air they breathe puts them at risk." It's hard to believe an organization of ALA's stature could make a statement so wildly at odds with reality.
The fight against smog is actually a great success story in environmental protection. According to EPA, ozone levels decreased by an average of about 24 percent nationwide between 1980 and 2000. Southern California, the region with the worst air in the country, reduced its annual violations of EPA's one-hour ozone standard by about 80% between 1980 and 2001. Houston, the second most polluted area in the country, reduced ozone violations by about 60% during the same period. Most, though not all, metropolitan areas have also achieved significant improvements. And these gains occurred at the same time Americans increased their driving by 75%. Readers of the ALA report would never know these facts. Instead, ALA misleads readers into believing air pollution is getting worse.
Only a few metropolitan areas San Bernardino, Houston, and Fresno still have serious air pollution problems. The vast majority of other regions have clean air, or have air pollution at a level harmful to only a small percentage of the population. Rather than the 142 million claimed by ALA, perhaps 20 million Americans are now at risk from ozone pollution. This is still a large number, and everyone deserves to breathe healthful air. Nevertheless, the real state of the air is far more favorable than ALA's scare-tactics would have Americans believe.
Ironically, ALA's efforts could actually end up reducing Americans' overall health. ALA's fear-mongering will encourage the public to demand unnecessary additional expenditures to clean up air that is already clean. In a world of limited resources, society can address only some of the many risks people face. When society wastes effort on small or non-existent risks, fewer real problems get the attention they deserve.
"If you torture the data enough, it will confess," goes a cautionary statistics joke. ALA seems to have adopted this maxim without a trace of irony.
Joel Schwartz has worked as a Senior Fellow at Reason Public Policy Institute, a Los Angeles-based think tank.