In Rebuttal: Our fair rankings of air pollution
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The Post-Gazette's May 4 editorial "Let's Clear the Air," attacking the fairness of our annual State of the Air study, may have left you wondering, as it did us, who are these Pittsburgh-hating guys at the American Lung Association? We barely recognized ourselves from the accusations lobbed at us. Let's try to truly "clear the air" here.
Importantly, the American Lung Association and the editors both agree that air pollution levels recorded at that Liberty-Clairton monitor are extremely unhealthy. The pollution recorded at that monitor is at levels which -- among other things -- trigger asthma attacks, heart attacks, strokes, and -- most concerning of all -- can kill. The people who bear the greatest burden of these pollutants are the 25,000 people in the Liberty-Clairton community. This pollution needs to be cleaned up.
However, the editorial accused us of not being "fair, much less scientific." These accusations are wrong.
The editorial failed to mention that we follow the same approach as the U.S Environmental Protection Agency, and we use EPA's own calculations for our annual rankings. EPA has always looked to the readings in the worst monitors in each county to determine which cities have unhealthy short-term levels of air pollution.
Scientists and EPA have debated using an "averaging" approach, such as the editors suggested, for the annual standard and identified serious flaws with it. Unfortunately, "averaging" monitors misleads and hides problems. Averaging the readings discounts the pollution breathed by some people as long as someone has cleaner air somewhere else in the same county. Far from producing fairer results, averaging distorts information about the problem that can hamper the development of cleanup strategies. (Although we disagree, EPA allows averaging to calculate the annual standard, though it imposes strict limits on its use. We have publicly disagreed with that decision.)
Averaging also can cost lives. In 2005, EPA studied the effect on human health in three cities when it used averaging compared to using the highest monitor readings as alternate ways to determine the year-round levels. Its scientists found that, if averaging were used, the incidence of premature death from particle pollution would range from 10 to 40 percent higher than if the highest monitor reading were used.
Fundamentally, averaging is unfair. Averaging tells the people who face the worst pollution levels that their extra burden does not matter, as long as there are much lower levels somewhere else. Historically, the dirtier air has been in poorer neighborhoods and the cleaner air in wealthier ones. Averaging makes it less likely that the areas with peak problems will get addressed, because their extra burden is hidden.
The problem of high particle pollution levels is not limited to the Liberty-Clairton area, as some have implied. Take the EPA's own calculations for the annual levels of particles, for example. Subtract the Liberty-Clairton monitor and Pittsburgh would still rank 13th most polluted city for year-round particle levels. The Post-Gazette itself reported in March that a Carnegie Mellon University study found pollution from the coke plants helps to "create unhealthy soot levels in East End."
We challenge the editors' allegations about our honesty and integrity. We provide our full methodology in print and online. We've answered questions openly about our methods in every press conference and in discussions with the editorial board.
We seek to translate complicated information so that it is easier to understand the dangers of unhealthy air in any community. We want communities to support steps such as the legal action the Allegheny County Health Department took to make U.S. Steel clean up its plants. We want Pittsburgh to move off the lists of the most polluted cities.
The Lung Association has fought lung disease for more than 100 years. We are still fighting. We tell the public about the air they breathe to save lives, improve lung health and prevent lung disease, even when we infuriate those we are trying to protect. And with us, every single person counts.
First Published May 18, 2009 12:00 am