Dead air: The lung association and its gross simplification

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Once again the American Lung Association has issued its State of the Air report and once again the group takes gross liberties with how it portrays pollution.

First, the headlines on the region’s 2013 results. The Pittsburgh metro area had its best showing in two categories in the 15 years of lung association rankings. The report said the numbers for year-round particle pollution were “better than ever” and that on daily particle pollution the region had its “fewest-ever unhealthful days.”

Despite these improvements, the region still fell to sixth-worst in the nation from eighth the previous year on year-round particle pollution and dropped to sixth-worst from seventh on daily particle pollution. The association said the region’s ranking worsened on ozone pollution, too, inching up to 21st from 24th the year before.

The lung association still does not clearly explain to the public that its assessment for each region is based on a single air monitor — the one that has the worst pollution reading of the day — and not on a blended or average reading of all monitors. It means that a region’s heaviest pollution could be registered at monitor A today and at monitor B tomorrow, but the numbers at the other monitors — which register better air quality — are disregarded.

This is how the pollution monitor at Liberty, near U.S. Steel’s Clairton coke works, has come to represent the air quality of the entire Pittsburgh region. In this report, the lung association’s projection of a single monitor as typical of the region is on even flimsier ground because the federal Office of Management and Budget folded some smaller metros into larger ones, leaving 217, instead of 277, metros for this report.

As a result, the Pittsburgh metro, which had eight counties previously, now has 12: Allegheny, Beaver, Butler, Washington, Westmoreland, Armstrong, Lawrence, Fayette and Indiana in Pennsylvania, plus three counties in the Weirton, West Virginia, and Steubenville, Ohio, area. As to pollution monitors, the old Pittsburgh metro had 14; the new one has 20.

Yet the American Lung Association continues to issue a report that says one monitor, usually Liberty and typically registering subpar air quality, should stand for a 12-county region in three states. The group says that since all metro regions are portrayed this way, the comparisons are valid. And, to our thinking, just as unsophisticated.

What if a trade group of coal-fired power plants issued its own report, letting the best pollution reading of 20 monitors represent the air quality in 12 counties? Clean-air advocates would be livid, and rightfully so. 

It’s hard to see the difference in a crude presentation of data that cuts the other way.

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