May 13, 2005
Luck and fudge factors behind KCs clean
Area officials announced
on May 11 that the Kansas City area has been declared to be in attainment
of the ozone smog air quality standard. Dont get too excited
though. Its a fluke...a lucky break from Mother Nature. Last
years highly unusual cool summer completely reversed official
expectations, expressed this time last year, that the area would violate
the ozone standard by year end.
Did we cut that much pollution in just a few months? Hardly. The
Environmental Protection Agency allows ozone smog monitoring data
to be cooked in such a way as to give a big break to polluted cities
when judging progress toward clean air. Ill explain, but first
some background on the science.
In 1997, the EPA set a new national air quality standard for ozone
smog. It was based on a review of the scientific literature that showed
there was apparently no lower threshold of biological effects on people,
though these effects were not necessarily adverse. However at 70 parts
per billion (ppb) in the air, adverse effects were noted in a small
percentage of our population. At 80 ppb, the EPA and its Science Advisory
Board judged that adverse effects were significant over 6 to 8 hours
of exposure. Those most affected are asthmatics, people exercising
and especially children. So EPA selected 80 ppb as the standard, expressed
as the average of 8 hourly measurements.
City officials and industry became concerned that this new limit
would cause large segments of the country to be declared polluted
which would eventually trigger expensive and troublesome enforcement
measures, like new commercial and industrial pollution controls and
routine testing of automobiles emissions. They neednt have worried.
Fudge factors are incorporated into the regulations:
1. only the fourth highest daily 8-hour value at each monitor is
Thus the standard actually becomes 85 ppb and some unhealthy days
are effectively left out of the equation. Remember, the science shows
that some people suffer significant adverse health effects at 80 ppb
A study published just last year in the Journal of the American
Medical Association backs the science underlying the current 80
ppb ozone air quality standard. This study found that a 10 ppb increase
in average daily ozone readings would increase national mortality
by 0.52%. While this is a low percentage, it translates into a lot
of bodies. Cardiovascular and respiratory deaths would rise 0.64%.
This study, based on data from 95 cities in the US, is considered
to be larger and more rigorous than some previous studies in Europe
and the US, most of which had shown elevated mortality from ozone
smog. Of particular interest is that mortality went up (0.18%) even
when ozone levels were below the EPAs 80 ppb standard.
To their credit area officials are well aware that this is probably
a fleeting moment of glory. They have already prepared plans for voluntary
measures that businesses and people can take to reduce pollution.
After ten years of studying this issue, I believe the regions
air quality is hostage to a struggle between gradual improvements
in auto design and industrial controls versus more and more SUVs driving
more miles in our sprawling metropolis. How this turns out is anybodys
Craig Volland is president of Spectrum Technologists, an environmental research firm. He is certified as a Qualified Environmental Professional and formerly was a member of Mid America Regional Councils Air Quality Forum. He is active in the Kansas Chapter of the Sierra Club.
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