Tuesday, July 08, 2014

False Advertising? Why the Air Quality Index is Wrong – and Needs to be Updated

Throughout the summer, we often hear about the “Air Quality Index” or AQI.
The index, originated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is supposed to represent the government’s Official Seal of Approval – or Disapproval – on the quality of the air we breathe.  According to the EPA,    “The AQI is an index for reporting daily air quality. It tells you how clean or polluted your air is, and what associated health effects might be a concern for you.” http://airnow.gov/index.cfm?action=aqibasics.aqi

But does it really?
In fact, the current AQI for smog, or ozone, doesn’t reflect the best and most recent science.  As a result, it dramatically understates the risk to the breathing public.  "Code Yellow" is nowhere near as safe as you might think.

At Clean Air Watch, we believe the public has the right to know if the air we breathe is safe.  Until the government updates the AQI based on the best science, that’s not the case.  Right now, some might call it false advertising.
Here is how EPA describes the index:

The higher the AQI value, the greater the level of air pollution and the greater the health concern. For example, an AQI value of 50 represents good air quality with little potential to affect public health, while an AQI value over 300 represents hazardous air quality.

An AQI value of 100 generally corresponds to the national air quality standard for the pollutant, which is the level EPA has set to protect public health. AQI values below 100 are generally thought of as satisfactory. When AQI values are above 100, air quality is considered to be unhealthy-at first for certain sensitive groups of people, then for everyone as AQI values get higher.

But is it really true that an AQI below 100 is “satisfactory?”
No -- not according to EPA’s own scientists and the agency’s independent science advisers.  In fact, they have been arguing for years, based on the latest science, that people are getting sick and actually dying from breathing air that the AQI tells us is “satisfactory.”

Let’s examine this issue more closely.
The current AQI for ozone, or smog, is based on the controversial ozone standard of 75 parts per billion set by the Bush Administration’s EPA in 2008.  That standard was set at a weak level for obvious political reasons despite the unanimous recommendation of the agency’s science advisers, who said the standard should be tougher to protect people’s health.

Indeed, the science advisers asserted in a letter to EPA that the scientific “Panel’s consensus scientific opinion that your decision to set the primary ozone standard above this range  [between 60 and 70] fails to satisfy the explicit stipulations of the Clean Air Act that you ensure an adequate margin of safety for all individuals, including sensitive populations.” http://yosemite.epa.gov/sab/sabproduct.nsf/4AF8764324331288852574250069E494/$File/EPA-CASAC-08-009-unsigned.pdf

The agency’s science advisers reasserted those comments when the EPA, under President Obama, took another look at the Bush standard and was prepared to tighten it in accordance with science -- until the President himself objected in 2011 and told EPA to stop. http://yosemite.epa.gov/sab/sabproduct.nsf/F08BEB48C1139E2A8525785E006909AC/$File/EPA-CASAC-11-004-unsigned+.pdf
For some quick background, also see: http://www.cleanairwatch.org/2013/06/breathers-beware-epa-admits-it-is-way.html#more

After reviewing more recent science, EPA’s science advisers recently again stated that the current standard of 75 was too weak to protect public health, and that even a standard of 70 would mean people could die unnecessarily from breathing smog: “… based on the scientific evidence, a level of 70 ppb provides little margin of safety for the protection of public health, particularly for sensitive subpopulations” (such as children with asthma).

An obvious question:  how does the Air Quality Index translate into actual ozone levels?  EPA provides an easy way to do this at http://airnow.gov/
So here are a few quick, illustrative calculations:

The controversially weak present standard of 75 translates to an AQI of 100.

That is deemed “code yellow” and “moderate” air quality, which, according to the EPA, means “air quality is acceptable” except for a very small number of people who are unusually sensitive to air pollution.” [By the way, according to the Centers for Disease Control, about 7 million children have asthma http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/asthma.htm  A “very small number?”]

An ozone standard of 60 – the low end of the range urged by EPA’s science advisers in order to minimize death and disease -- is all the way down to an AQI of 51. 
For inexplicable reasons, 51 and 100 receive an identical “moderate” and “code yellow” rating.  (A tiny, one part per billion drop in ozone, to 59, suddenly makes it “good” or “green” air quality. Go figure.)
A standard of 70 – the level EPA tried to set in 2011 but which the agency’s science advisers recently said was too weak– would translate into an AQI of 84.   Needless to say, that's also "code yellow."

Conversely, how much actual pollution in the air does it take to trigger an ominous “Code Red” warning?   It has to be a minimum of 96 parts per billion – and an AQI of at least 151! 
Because we’ve made progress over the years in reducing air pollution, the “Code Reds” have become less frequent.  But “Code Yellow” happens virtually every day in the summer, often in many states. 

Just yesterday, for example, we happened to notice in a random check that ozone was hitting the 100 AQI level in Baltimore (in other words, at the scientifically too weak standard of 75 ppb).  http://airnow.gov/index.cfm?action=airnow.local_city&mapcenter=0&cityid=76

Unfortunately, the poor folks in Baltimore were told their air was “moderate” and generally "acceptable." 
The EPA is under a court order to propose a decision about a national health standard for ozone by December, and to make a final decision by October 2015.

We hope the EPA will take the advice of its science advisers – and update this critical piece of information so the public’s right to know is satisfied.  Truth in advertising is something we value.















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