As a rule of thumb, one should always approach a mainstream or left-wing media story involving the environment with a healthy sense of skepticism. A seemingly innocuous slide show entitled “9 of the Most Polluted Places in the World” that appeared at the Huffington Post on Tuesday provides a lesson in how environmental disinformation is disseminated and thus becomes part of the liberal narrative. Having worked in the environmental field for over twenty five years now, I cannot over-emphasize how often this happens in the media. Mainstream environmental stories seem authoritative and appear to conform with journalistic standards; data is presented and apparently qualified experts are cited. But, when one scratches below the surface just a bit, it becomes clear that these “straight news” stories more closely resemble editorials in support of environmental advocacy groups.
Some of the nine cities listed by HuffPo unquestionably belong on such a list. Although it’s odd that they didn’t include Mexico City, there’s no arguing that places like Linfen, China, and the Niger Delta are environmental disasters. But how can one justify putting Los Angeles and Phoenix on such a list? It’s borderline criminal to imply that the state of the environment in even America’s most polluted cities comes anywhere close to what people who live in places like Mexico City and Linfen are exposed to. Not only is the comparison an insult to all of the Americans who have spent so much time and money to clean up this country, it diverts attention from the globe’s actual environmental disasters. If places like Mexico City and Linfen ever approach the environmental conditions that Los Angeles and Phoenix enjoy, residents would celebrate.
How do you legitimize such a ridiculous comparison? Here’s how HuffPo’s Barbara Fenig did it:
According to the American Lung Association, Los Angeles is the city with the most polluted ozone. The average ozone level in Los Angeles is 138.8 and the average particulates level is 16.8. The California Air Resources Board states that 18,000 deaths a year are “premature deaths” caused by air pollution.
The Phoenix-Mesa-Scottsdale area is 2010’s worst place in the United States for year round particle pollution, a mix of dust, soot and aerosols. The Arizona region experiences year-round particle pollution at all hours of the day.
There are a couple of things that jump out in those two paragraphs to suggest that the author has no idea what she is writing about. Declaring that the average ozone level in Los Angeles is “138.8” and the average particulate level is “16.8” is meaningless. 138.8 and 16.8 what? Without units and without specifying how that data compares to numerical standards, those are just weightless numbers drifting in the breeze. The assertion that Arizona experiences year round particle (sic) pollution is equally meaningless. Everyone living on planet Earth is exposed to particulate year round. Particles exist in the air naturally. What matters is not that some amount of particulate matter is always in the air, but how much is in the air and how that amount compares to a numerical standard.
USEPA publishes air quality standards for air pollutants that officially define the term clean air. The Agency also operates a network of thousands of monitors that continually measure what is in the air and compares those concentrations to their standards. Monitoring data is publically available, at USEPA’s Air Data website. The monitoring data shows that no monitor in the Los Angeles area has found more than one amount in excess of the ozone standard per year over the last ten years of recorded data. The same is true of “fine” particulate (PM-2.5) in the area and is usually true when it comes to “regular” particulate (PM-10). The spectacular exception to the latter was the year 2007, when PM-10 monitors showed multiple overshoots in the Los Angeles basin. Why? That was the year that wildfires ran rampant in Southern California, pouring particulate into the air.
The story is much the same in Phoenix. No monitor in the Phoenix-Mesa area has shown more than one violation of the ozone standard or the PM-2.5 standard over the last ten years of recorded data. PM-10 is more problematic, but that’s much more a quirk of nature since Phoenix is surrounded by deserts and very dry soils that generate particulate matter. So, if both of these metropolitan areas are almost always in compliance with air quality standards, on what basis is HuffPo trying to put them on a list of genuine environmental hotspots? The answer involves a couple of steps.
USEPA publishes an “Air Quality Index” for metropolitan areas. The Air Quality Index was not established under the Clean Air Act and the Agency has no authority to use it in the context of regulation. It is presented instead as an informational tool that supposedly gives people an idea of the overall air quality where they live. To calculate the Air Quality Index, the USEPA compares actual concentrations of each air pollutant to the appropriate standard. If the concentration is the same as the standard, the EPA assigns a value of 100 for purposes of calculating the Air Quality Index. If the concentration is half the standard, the Agency assigns a value of 50, and so on. Each of these values are added together and the sum is published as the Air Quality Index number for the day.
And this is where things get interesting. According to USEPA, an air quality index value above 200 represents “very unhealthy air.” Thus, according to the Agency, a metropolitan area can meet the ozone standard, the PM-2.5 standard and PM-10 standard, but if they’re not far enough below the standards, the Air Quality Index formula will generate a value of over 200 and the air will be deemed “very unhealthy.” Nothing about this mathematical exercise has been authorized by Congress or supported by science, but the technique allows the Agency to regularly claim that the air in places like Los Angeles and Phoenix is “very unhealthy,” even though those cities are meeting the standards that the EPA itself established.
When an environmental advocacy group like the American Lung Association gets their hands on the data, they perform even more dubious mathematical tricks to “prove” that America’s air is deadly. For example, rather than consider a metropolitan area as a whole (as the EPA does) ALA will cherry-pick the worst values in the worst-county in the area, and then further inflate those values using a weighted average formula. ALA also applies arbitrary multipliers to inflate the EPA’s already inflated Air Quality Index data. By the time ALA is done manipulating the data and publishing their annual “State of the Air” report, city after city receives an “F” grade for air quality. Given ALA’s methods, it’s hard to imagine how any city could receive a passing grade.
Very few journalists ever dig deeply into the EPA’s assertions or the claims of environmental groups like the ALA. Unfortunately, this example of environmental reporting malpractice by HuffPo is not an isolated incident. Deeply-flawed stories about the environment are published on practically a daily basis, by mainstream media outlets like CNN and the New York Times, and on popular internet sites. In the wake of climategate, many have focused on how poorly the mainstream media has served the public with regard to global warming issues. But, that’s just a symptom of the larger disease. As this example illustrates, “getting the story wrong” is the norm when most journalists write about science or the environment.