Monday, May 13, 2013

Poking Holes in the American Lung Association’s “State of the Air” Report

For the past 14 years the American Lung Association has released their annual “State of the Air” report and for the past 14 years San Antonio has received an “F” for our air quality. This report is supposed to be used as a guideline for people to get a sense of the air quality in their region, but after further review, it could be argued that the “State of the Air” is more akin to a “State of Fear”, to borrow a title from best-selling author Michael Crichton.
First of all, let’s look at the American Lung Association’s “methodology” for giving out their grades. I’m going to focus on ground level ozone, since it is the leading pollutant in the country and impacts the most cities in the country. As you can see in the chart from their website, using eight hour “weighted averages” for high ozone days, any city with an average of 3.3 or higher gets an “F”.  Anything less than 3.3 gives you an “A” with zero, up to a “D” with 3.2. At first glance, this may seem like a logical system of grading until you look more closely.  Using their methodology, San Antonio, with a rating of 5.7, gets the same grade of “F” as Houston, with 27.3 and Los Angeles with 81.8!  A person simply looking at the ALA grades would think that San Antonio’s air is just as polluted with ozone as Los Angeles, even though LA has a weighted average of almost twenty times that of San Antonio. Brewster County, which includes Big Bend Nation Park, got a “D” from the ALA. Brewster County only has a population of just over nine thousand and no major manufacturing.

Now let’s look at how many counties in Texas were included in this report. Because only 35 counties have ozone monitors, 219 out of Texas’ 254 counties were not included. Moral of the story, make sure your county does not have an ozone monitor if you don’t want an “F”!
Next, let’s compare asthma rates between some of the “dirtiest air” cities and the cleanest air cities in Texas. I’ve also included a couple from California just to show that cities from outside of Texas compare pretty equally. I used adult and pediatric asthmatics, taken from the report for each city that I examined. San Antonio, which as you know by now, garnered an “F” on the report, has an asthmatic percentage of 7.5%.  Houston and Dallas also have around 7.5% asthmatics and both cities also got an “F” rating. One of the “A” cities, Brownsville has an asthma rate of 7.6% as well as Webb County which also came in at 7.6%. “F” rated Los Angeles hit 8%, but so did “A” rated Lake Tahoe. These rates are consistent with ones I’ve researched in the past. There appears to be no correlation between asthma rates and high ozone.

It really concerns me that the American Lung Association releases this report every year and scares citizens in almost every city in the country, thinking that where they live could be harming their health. True, pollution is not a good thing, but the air in our cities is cleaner than at any time in the past 50 years due to cleaner burning vehicles and reductions in electrical generation emissions. Furthermore, if a person were genuinely attempting to make a decision on where they should move or start a business based on this report, they would be left thinking that a city like San Antonio was just as polluted as Los Angeles or even more outlandish, a county in far west Texas with less than 10,000 residents.


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