An A For Alarmism And An F For Facts: The American Lung Association’s Phony War on Smog


From the June 2001 CEI UpDate


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 2001 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. But this report card says a lot less about the actual air quality and more about the tactics and motives of the ALA.


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. Ozone, the primary constituent of smog, has declined by approximately 30 percent since the 1970s. And the progress will likely continue, even without any new regulations.


The ALA is correct that many 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. L.A., which exceeded federal smog standards for 154 days in 1989, did so only 35 times in 1999. But an ALA-assigned F misleadingly implies that air quality has not improved at all.


Of the 96 areas outside California that did not meet the federal ozone standard in 1990, only 17 remain, and many of these are very close to attainment. Nonetheless, the 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, the ALA demanded a standard even more strict than the federal government’s, which allows four exceedences per year. The ALA further exaggerated the public health hazard by grossly overstating the risks of relatively minor and sporadic increases above the new standard.


Even if one accepts the ALA’s definition of failing air quality, its claim that 141 million Americans are breathing bad air is a gross overstatement. The 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 the 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 Fs should really stand for fundraising. The Sacramento Bee recently did 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. The ALA takes a back seat to nobody in this fundraising business, using the coverage of its annual report card as an effective marketing tool. In addition, the ALA gets millions in taxpayer dollars from the EPA, then turns around and fights for an increased EPA budget to fight this overblown smog crisis.


Contributions to the 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 the ALA’s study is what really deserves a failing grade.


Ben Lieberman ([email protected]) is a senior policy analyst at CEI. Kay Jones is the head of Zephyr Consulting, a Seattle-based environmental consulting firm. The two are authors of The Ongoing Clean-Air Debate: The Science Behind EPA’s Rule on Soot, published this month by CEI.