No Smog for the Fear Factory?

Ozone smog levels have plummeted during the last three years. Between 2003 and 2005, the fraction of the nation's ozone monitors violating the federal 8-hour ozone standard plunged from 43 percent down to a record-low 18 percent.[1] The last three years were the three lowest-ozone years on record.

Visiting Fellow Joel Schwartz
Environmental fear factories aren't celebrating. Shortly after the 2005 ozone season ended, the environmental group Clean Air Watch proclaimed "Smog Problems Nearly Double in 2005."[2] Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection warned "Number of Ozone Action Days Up from Last Year."[3] And EPA's New England regional office noted that "New England Experienced More Smog Days during Recent Summer."[4] Writing on 2005 ozone levels in Connecticut, a New York Times headline warned "A Hot Summer Meant More Smog.[5]

Ozone levels were indeed higher in 2005 when compared with 2004. 2005 was only the second lowest ozone year since the 1970s, while 2004 was the lowest. Ozone levels were so improbably low in 2004 that it would have been astounding if ozone wasn't higher in 2005. The real news was the unprecedented plunge in areas violating the ozone standard, and the fact that 2005 was one of the hottest years on record--conditions that favor high ozone--yet ozone levels remained at historic lows.[6] Both stories have gone unnoticed by the mainstream media.
Figure 1 displays the trends in days exceeding the federal 8-hour and 1-hour ozone standards during the last 30 years. 8-hour ozone exceedances declined 80 percent, while 1-hour exceedances declined more than 95 percent.

Figure 1. Trend in Average Number of Days per Year Exceeding the Federal 1-hour and 8-hour Ozone Standards

Figure 1

Notes: Solid lines give average for all sites in the U.S. Broken lines give average for sites continuously operated from 1985-2005. Data downloaded from EPA at http://www.epa.gov/ttn/airs/airsaqs/index.htm.

Fine particulate matter (PM2.5) has also been dropping. PM2.5 declined steadily each year from 1999 to 2004, before rising a few percent in 2005. Like ozone, PM2.5 can jog up and down from year to year based on weather, so the rise in 2005 isn't cause for alarm. Emissions and ambient levels of PM2.5-forming pollutants, such as nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, and volatile organic compounds, continue to go down. Just as for ozone, the press has missed the drop in PM2.5 violations. Thirty percent of monitoring sites violated federal PM2.5 standards in 2001, but the nation cut that percentage in half by the end of 2005.[7]

The medley of environmental scares continues as the American Lung Association (ALA) releases the latest installment of its annual State of the Air report. In some ways the report is an improvement over previous editions. Where ALA used to create the false impression that air pollution was increasing and would continue to increase, State of the Air now admits that both air pollution and emissions have been declining, and that upcoming regulations will continue to clean the air.

Nevertheless, State of the Air 2006 is still mainly nonsense on stilts. ALA continues to claim that nearly half of all Americans live in areas that violate the 8-hour ozone standard. ALA used data from 2002-2004 for its estimates--a period for which 30 percent of ozone monitors violated the 8-hour standard. But ozone was much lower 2003-2005, with a national violation rate of only 18 percent. ALA's claim of high ozone levels today is thus based on a spike in ozone that occurred four years ago, back in the summer of 2002.

Even with the older data, ALA still counts clean areas as dirty. For example, ALA counts all 3 million people in San Diego County as living in areas that violate the 8-hour ozone standard. But only Alpine, a small rural town, actually violates the standard. The other 99 percent of San Diegans breathe clean air and have for many years. Nevertheless, under ALA's grading system, if even a tiny part of a county violates a pollution standard, ALA counts all people in the county as breathing air that violates the standard. ALA counted clean areas as dirty in dozens of other populous counties around the country, including Los Angeles, Cook (Chicago), and Maricopa (Phoenix), artificially inflating its "dirty air" tally by tens of millions of people.

Even in areas that have the worst air pollution in the nation, ALA wasn't satisfied with reporting actual pollution levels and instead resorted to pollution inflation. For example, ALA claims Riverside County in California averaged 90 days per year exceeding the 8-hour ozone standard during 2002-2004. But even Banning, the worst location in the county, averaged 50 exceedance days per year, while Indio, the best location, averaged 17.

State of the Air has received less and less press coverage with each successive edition. Doom-and-gloom is mother's milk in journalism. But ALA's report looks pretty much the same each year, and is probably starting to provoke yawns in the nation's newsrooms. If we could reduce press coverage of State of the Air as quickly as we're reducing actual air pollution, we'd be in pretty good shape.

Or maybe not. Nature abhors a vacuum, and so does the environmental fear industry. If recent publicity is any guide, greenhouse gases have become the new air pollution.

Joel Schwartz is a visiting fellow at AEI. Lauren Campbell of AEI collected the 2005 ozone monitoring data used in this article from state environment agencies.

Notes

[1] Unless otherwise noted, air pollution data discussed in this essay were downloaded from EPA at http://www.epa.gov/air/data/index.html.

[2] O'Donnell, Smog Problems Nearly Double in 2005 (Washington, DC: Clean Air Watch, November 10 2005), http://cleanairwatchpressroom.blogspot.com/2005/11/smog-problems-nearly-double-in-2005.html.

[3] Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, "NUMBER OF OZONE ACTION DAYS UP FROM LAST YEAR," September 28, 2005, http://www.ahs.dep.state.pa.us/newsreleases/default.asp?ID=3643&varQueryType=Detail.

[4] EPA Region 1, New England Experienced More Smog Days During Recent Summer (Boston: September 26 2005), http://www.epa.gov/region1/pr/2005/sep/dd050917.html.

[5] J. Holtz, "A Hot Summer Meant More Smog," New York Times, October 2, 2005.

[6] U. L. McFarling and M. Bustillo, "2005 Vying with '98 as Record Hot Year," Los Angeles Times, December 16, 2005.

[7] National PM2.5 monitoring didn't begin until 1999, so 2001 is the first three-year period available for calculating national PM2.5 violation rates.

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