Disputing (Again) That US Air Quality Is Worsening

August 19, 2019 Updated: August 19, 2019


The headline of the Aug. 13 story in U.S. News & World Report certainly catches one’s attention: “Air Pollution Is Like Smoking a Pack of Cigarettes a Day to Those With Lung Disease: Study.”

This sort of headline and the story that went with it duly plays into the narrative that air quality in the United States continues to deteriorate and appears to give lie to President Donald Trump’s claim that air in the United States is as clean as it’s ever been in the industrialized era.

Unfortunately, when an air-quality professional such as yours truly reviews staff writer Cecelia Smith-Schoenwalder’s work, it quickly becomes apparent that the underlying story is an unfortunate mixture of misapplied facts and misinformed conjecture.

The study in question, by Meng Wang, et al., and published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), looked at the effects of four air pollutants on the progression of emphysema in a target group. The four air pollutants were ozone, fine particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, and carbon black, the last being a particular kind of fine particulate matter.

Wang and colleagues concluded that “long-term exposure to ambient air pollutants, especially (ozone), was significantly associated with increasing emphysema quantitatively using CT imaging and worsening lung function.” Fair enough, as far as conclusions go, but there’s a lot that can be inferred from that conclusion that shouldn’t be. Unfortunately, Smith-Schoenwalder and the experts she chose to quote don’t hesitate to crawl out onto long and fragile branches of credibility.

“Now, even nonsmokers are at risk because of air pollution, according to researchers,” Smith-Schoenwalder wrote. Jumping from a study examining the rate of progress of emphysema in middle-aged and elderly suffers of emphysema and extrapolating that to the risk of any lung disease among any nonsmoker anywhere is a massive leap that can’t be scientifically defended.

She moved on to quote one of the study authors, University of Washington professor Joel Kaufman, who proclaimed that: “Rates of chronic lung disease in this country are going up and increasingly, it is recognized that this disease occurs in nonsmokers. We really need to understand what’s causing chronic lung disease, and it appears that air pollution exposures that are common and hard to avoid might be a major contributor.”

There are a few problems with this point of view. One, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data clearly shows that emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and nitrogen oxides, the two pollutants that combine to form tropospheric ozone, have been steadily dropping for more than 30 years. This is also true of fine particulate matter. EPA’s monitoring system confirms the trend. As just one example of the latter trend, the following graph tracks exceedances of the current, most stringent ozone standard from 2000 through 2018.

ozone exceedence graph
(Richard Trzupek)

The article makes the claim that ozone formation “is increasing in part due to climate change.” Clearly, that’s not the case. While air temperature is one part of the ozone creation formula, it’s clear that ozone formation is decreasing over time and, given all of the regulations in place and in the pipeline, will continue to do so. The slight recent warming trend simply isn’t strong enough to overcome massive reductions in VOC and nitrogen oxide emissions.

Smith-Schoenwalder makes the now oft-repeated observation that the number of unhealthy air days increased in 2018. True enough, as far as that statement goes. But, as I detailed in another column for The Epoch Times: 1) “unhealthy air days” are defined by EPA’s Air Quality Index (AQI), 2) the AQI declares an unhealthy air day when a monitor reports that the National Ambient Air Quality Standard (NAAQS) for any pollutant has been exceeded, 3) ozone NAAQS exceedances are increasingly rare and contribute little to AQI unhealthy air days, 4) particulate matter less than 2.5 microns (PM-2.5) NAAQS exceedances are the leading cause of AQI unhealthy air days by far, and 5) industrial emissions contribute less than 20 percent of PM-2.5 emissions to the atmosphere.

Finally, and most disappointingly to me as an air-quality professional, the article quotes the American Lung Association’s (ALA) claim that four out of 10 Americans live with “poor air quality.” Left unsaid is that this claim isn’t based on comparison to nationally recognized EPA NAAQS standards, but in comparison to the ALA’s own standards. The ALA’s definition of clean air involves, in other words, standards much more stringent than the standards set forth by the agency in charge of environmental protection across the nation and that haven’t been relaxed since Trump took office.

Certainly, the ALA has every right to claim that more stringent standards should be used, but they also have an ethical obligation—at least in my view—to make clear upfront that they use much different standards before declaring an air pollution apocalypse.

Further, when considering such claims, the public should take into account that the ALA has a financial interest in pushing the “our air is unfit to breathe” narrative. Can anyone doubt that admitting to the remarkable progress we’ve made and continue to make in reducing air pollution would hurt their particular call-to-action and, therefore, their fundraising efforts? Or, would it be embarrassing to this massive environmental NGO to say that the current NAAQS for air pollutants, many of which were established or maintained under the Obama administration, are insufficiently protective of human health and the environment and that their alternative standards should be used instead?

The truth is that there are places on planet Earth where the air is actually dangerous to breathe. Cities in nations such as China, India, and Pakistan have appalling air quality. Even Greenpeace has the good grace to admit that in the United States and Canada “average air quality is good in global comparison,” while reinforcing this author’s point about the source of unhealthy air quality days, by saying “historic wildfires had a dramatic impact on air quality in August and November.”

Greenpeace wants to tie those wildfires to global warming, while folks like me blame them much more on incompetent forest management by the federal government. That, though, is an argument for another day. For now, let’s lay to rest the spurious claims that air pollution in the United States is on the rise or significant. The world has much larger air pollution problems than ours. Let’s get our priorities in order.

Richard Trzupek is a chemist and environmental consultant as well as an analyst at The Heartland Institute. He is also the author of “Regulators Gone Wild: How the EPA Is Ruining American Industry.”

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.