Every year, the American Lung Association (ALA) releases its annual report card on smog, and every year it gives an “F” to over half the nation's counties and cities. When ALA's “State of the Air 2002” recently came out, dozens of credulous local journalists once again took the bait, ominously reporting that their corner of the nation received a failing grade. The national coverage was no better, repeating as fact ALA's statement that it is “gravely concerned” about air quality, and neglecting to solicit the views of even one scientist with a differing view. Too bad, because this report card says a lot less about actual air quality than it does about the tactics and motives of the ALA.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
The very fact that 60 percent of counties were given an “F” — not exactly your typical grade distribution — smacks of alarmism. This is particularly true given that smog levels have been trending downward for several decades. According to EPA statistics, ozone, the primary constituent of smog, has declined by approximately 30 percent since the 1970s. And recent gains indicate that the progress will likely continue, even without the wave of new regulations ALA is now demanding.
ALA is correct that some areas still occasionally exceed the federal standard for ozone, but such spikes are far less frequent than in the past. Even Los Angeles, the undisputed smog capital of America, has cleaned up its act considerably. Los Angeles, which exceeded federal smog standards for 154 days in 1989, has had 75 percent fewer such spikes in recent years. But an ALA-assigned “F” misleadingly implies that air quality has not improved at all.
Most of the nation is currently in attainment with the current smog standard, and much of the rest is getting close. Nonetheless, ALA chose to assign an “F” to an entire county based on just a few readings above a strict new EPA standard enacted in 1997 but not yet in force. In effect, ALA demanded a standard even more stringent than the federal government's, which allows some leeway for a few anomalously high readings in otherwise clean areas. ALA further exaggerated the public-health hazard by grossly overstating the risks of these relatively minor and sporadic increases above the standard.
Even if one accepts ALA's definition of failing air quality, its claim that 142 million Americans are breathing bad air is a gross overstatement. ALA based its calculations on the worst-case monitor in each county, although in many cases other monitors did not measure exceedences. Nonetheless, the entire county or urban area's population was counted as being exposed to unhealthy air.
Why has ALA come such a long way from its roots as a respected public-health organization to the environmental scaremonger it is today? In truth, all those “F”s should really stand for fundraising. The Sacramento Bee has done an excellent series on environmental organizations, pointing out that environmental and public-health scares are frequently used to attract contributions in what is now a $3.5 billion dollar industry. ALA takes a backseat to nobody in this fundraising business, using the coverage of its annual report card as an effective marketing tool. In addition, ALA gets millions in taxpayer dollars from the EPA, then turns around and lobbies for a bigger agency budget and expanded regulatory authority.
Unfortunately, contributions to ALA are probably pouring in from thousands of well-meaning Americans concerned that air quality in their hometown received an “F.” Too bad they don't realize that ALA's study is what really deserves a failing grade.