Thursday, May 01, 2008

Misleading Headlines on Air Quality, Yet Again

Well, there they go again. The American Lung Association (ALA), with more interest in sensational headlines than accurate research and information, has released its 2008 "State of the Air" report claiming that Pittsburgh is the "most polluted city" in the country for particle pollution (what is popularly called soot).

And the local and national news media dutifully made it front-page headlines, since what a "new study" says is often more important than what the truth really is.

As has been more accurately reported here and in the Post-Gazette in the past, the ALA's rankings are based on the unusually high readings at a single monitor in the Mon Valley near the Clairton Coke Works called the Liberty Monitor. (Tip to environmental reporters: type in "Air Pollution Rankings" in Google and you'll easily find all of this information on the first or second search page.)

If you want to see how unusual the Liberty Monitor is, go to the PittsburghToday website, where the maximum readings at every PM2.5 monitor in the region are reported. (Tip to environmental reporters: the PittsburghToday website reported all of this so-called "new" information on pollution rankings last fall, six months before the ALA.) None of the news articles have bothered to report that the pollution readings at the Liberty Monitor are nearly double the readings at any other pollution monitor in the entire region, and so any ranking based on that monitor is not really representative of what most people in the region are breathing.

The Liberty monitor is in Liberty Borough, not in the City of Pittsburgh. Yet the ALA uses this monitor to rank "Pittsburgh" as the dirtiest "city" in the country. (ALA has a separate ranking for counties, where Allegheny County ranks #1, so it could easily have distinguished the City if it wanted to.) As you can see in the chart on, the highest monitor in the City of Pittsburgh has pollution levels only half as high as the Liberty Monitor.

In fact, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has officially said that the pollution measured at the Liberty Monitor isn't related to the air quality that people in Pittsburgh or the rest of the region are breathing. The area surrounding the Liberty Monitor and the monitor in North Braddock were designated by EPA in 2006 as a different air quality attainment region than the rest of the Pittsburgh Region. That means that if ALA wants to use the air quality readings at the Liberty Monitor to rank something as #1 in the country, it should rank the Mon Valley as #1, not "Pittsburgh."

Now, the fact that the Pittsburgh Region doesn't really have the worst air quality in the country doesn't mean that it doesn't have a problem. In fact, as reported last fall in the Post-Gazette and as documented on PittsburghToday, the average level of PM2.5 (soot) pollution in our region is higher than most comparable regions. So we do have a serious air quality problem in our region, and it's not just in the Mon Valley.

But then the obvious question is: what's causing it? And that's where the ALA and our local media again fail to give the really important information: the high levels of soot outside of the Mon Valley are not being caused by pollution sources in the region, but by sources in upwind states. Studies done by Carnegie Mellon show that up to 80% of the particulate matter pollution in southwestern Pennsylvania is caused by pollution sources in states to the west and south, not by sources in southwestern Pennsylvania. Even if we were to shut down every power plant in our region, stop driving cars, etc., we would still have high levels of soot in the air here.

So when the ALA ranks Pittsburgh as having high pollution, but gives low rankings to the regions that are causing the pollution, it's blaming the victim. And while the ALA may think that its sensationalistic reporting will help, blaming downwind regions like ours may actually make it harder to insure that the multi-state pollution controls that are essential for pollution reduction are implemented and enforced.


Blogger Schultz said...

People have been complaining about the location of the air quality monitors for years. Why can't we get the ALA to relocate their monitors to a more central location?

10:03 PM  
Blogger nemo said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

12:19 PM  
Blogger nemo said...

great post, thanks for the big picture that the media doesn't seem interested in providing. i posted a link to your blog at mine ( pgh art related)


12:21 PM  
Blogger Harold D. Miller said...

It's not really a problem with the air quality monitors, per se. You want to have monitors near pollution sources so you know if the air quality is bad. And it is a problem that the people in Liberty Borough get air as bad as they do.

The problem is with the way ALA is using the data to represent the air quality in the region. EPA used to follow a similar approach, but thanks to strong advocacy by the region and state a few years ago, it recognized that it was inappropriate to use the Liberty Monitor to measure the quality of the rest of the region's air. But ALA (and the researcher it uses to compile its rankings) either aren't aware of this important nuance, or don't want to be aware of it. The Pittsburgh Region is unique in having this kind of small non-attainment area. None of Los Angeles' monitors are separated out like this, but ALA treats all of the Pittsburgh Region monitors, including Liberty Borough, exactly the same as all of the Los Angeles monitors, even though EPA doesn't.

7:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just blogged about this subject myself. If you look at the reports, LA is still ranked as the #1 most polluted, #1 in year round soot, and #1 in smog. And yet everyone yells "PITTSBURGH IS THE MOST POLLUTED!" because we ranked #1 in one category, apparently as measured by entirely unscientific and inaccurate means.

Enough to make you crazy, eh?

9:32 AM  

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