May 13, 2005


Luck and ‘fudge factors’ behind KC’s clean air designation
by Craig Volland

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. Don’t get too excited though. It’s a fluke...a lucky break from Mother Nature. Last year’s 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. I’ll 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 needn’t have worried. Fudge factors are incorporated into the regulations:

1. only the fourth highest daily 8-hour value at each monitor is counted;
2. annual results are then averaged over three years;
3. then officials can “round down” from 84 ppb to meet the 80 ppb standard.

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 and higher.

Though there are many factors affecting ozone pollution, one of the most important is air temperature. Ozone smog levels are generally lower when the temperature is cool. Last year’s very cool summer substantially skewed the three-year average calculation. Thus when KC’s brutally hot summers return, and they will, citizens will suffer actual health effects on many days. Resident’s living in the Northland and even as far away as Atchison and St. Joseph will be on the receiving end of the highest values in KC’s ozone plume. Yet the Kansas City region has been declared a clean air city.

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 EPA’s 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 region’s 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 anybody’s guess.

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 Council’s Air Quality Forum. He is active in the Kansas Chapter of the Sierra Club.


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