The American Lung Association is applauding Pittsburgh for taking steps in recent years to improve its air quality. If only the lung association would do the same with its annual report.
Its 2015 edition of “State of the Air” ranks U.S. metropolitan regions for air quality in key categories: short-term particulate pollution, year-round particulate pollution and ground-level ozone. Anyone concerned about breathing clean air in any part of the country should pay attention to such numbers.
But the lung association’s skewed presentation again misleads the public on pollution in the three-state, 12-county Pittsburgh metro region. The problem is fundamental and it robs the report of any validity for describing air quality in such a large, diverse area.
That’s because the association uses the reading of the single dirtiest pollution monitor to represent the air quality of the entire region. In Pittsburgh’s case, that is usually the monitor at Liberty, which measures the air near U.S. Steel’s Clairton coke works, one of the most polluted spots in the nation.
But the Liberty monitor’s readings do not reflect air quality across Allegheny County, let alone the other 11 counties, three of them in West Virginia and Ohio. For instance, eight monitors are situated across Allegheny County to measure fine particulate; three are placed in different locations to gather data on ozone. Overall, the 12 counties in the Pittsburgh metro have 20 pollution monitors, and none of them records the kind of readings taken near the nation’s largest coke plant.
The lung association knows this, but its “State of the Air” report does not mention it. The group maintains that its portrayal is fair because its methodology is the same for all metros. It says that since people are mobile for purposes of work, school, shopping and other activities, they breathe the air that they encounter and not just the air near their homes.
Even so, the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy, with which the Post-Gazette seldom agrees, called the report “junk science.” Allegheny County health director Karen Hacker was quick to point out that it “is based on only one of eight geographically dispersed fine particulate monitoring stations.”
Thank goodness this isn’t a report on education. If Mrs. Brown had a classroom with 20 students, one of whom was illiterate, the American Lung Association would say Mrs. Brown’s class can’t read.
Given this level of statistical malpractice, it scarcely matters that the lung association this year ranks the 12-county region as 10th most polluted in the nation for short-term particulate, ninth worst for year-round particulate and 21st worst for ozone. The truth is that only the region’s dirtiest monitor — one out of 20 — has those rankings against the dirtiest monitor of every other region.
So it is bogus to project that Liberty’s toxic readings apply to McCandless, Beaver, Ligonier, Burgettstown and Kittanning, not to mention Steubenville, Ohio, and Wellsburg and Chester, W.Va. — to name just a few places in the metro geography.
The American Lung Association has the ability to convey air quality data with more accuracy and sophistication. Yet it refuses, favoring instead annual reports that alarm and deceive. Talk about a pollution source in need of cleanup.