COMMENTARY: Delaware gets an ‘A’ for air quality

The Environmental Protection Agency tracks seven pollutants at air quality monitoring stations in Delaware, and we currently meet National Ambient Air Quality Standards for six of them. Kent and Sussex counties meet the standards for all seven. New Castle County misses meeting the standard for ground-level ozone by a marginal amount, less than 3 percent of the time, thus meeting the standard over 97 percent of the time.

The standards are established through a rigorous process to determine safe exposure levels, and then, the standard is reduced another 20 percent as an extra margin of safety. New Castle County is well within that safety margin even on days when it is slightly high.

Air quality in Delaware would get an “A” by almost any measure. However, not according to the American Lung Association. In 2016, ALA gave Delaware an “F” in all three counties! How can that be? ALA grades on quite the curve. Meeting the standard 100 percent of the time gets an “A.” Meeting the standard 99 percent of the time, incredibly, yields an “F.” On top of using a ridiculously tight curve, ALA ignores the EPA standard and uses their own preferred version.

Ozone is not emitted directly, but forms from chemical reactions between oxides of nitrogen and volatile organic compounds, which occur both as man-made and naturally occurring chemicals. Those reactions are accelerated by sunlight and heat so tend to peak on hot summer days when temperatures exceed 95 degrees F.

Summers with a lot of heat waves have more days with high ozone levels. Great Smoky Mountain National Park in Tennessee gets its name from the summer haze formed from volatile compounds emitted by pine trees in the park. The park would have gotten an “F” from the ALA for ozone even before man occupied the continent! In 1980, Delaware was significantly over the standard almost half the year, but a lot of hard, expensive work has cleaned things up.

Today, many areas of the country are approaching natural background levels for ozone. Rural areas are already there, and no amount of regulation will cut ozone levels further. Even in urban areas, as much as 90 percent of volatile organic compounds, and half of oxides of nitrogen, are from natural sources, such as plants. Emissions of ozone precursors are so low in Kent and Sussex counties, they are no longer measured.

Of the manmade pollution portion, motor vehicle exhaust accounts for about half of the oxides-of-nitrogen pollution, and a third of volatile organic compounds. Existing tailpipe emission standards will help, but it takes 15 years to turn over the fleet of older vehicles, but ozone levels should continue to fall over the next decade with no new regulations.

You might wonder why the ALA uses such narrow criteria. To find the answer, start by following the money. The EPA and ALA have a self-interest in maintaining the impression air quality is in crisis to keep money flowing to their organizations. The ALA received $20 million in grants from the EPA over the last decade to help fund the report card. Nothing like seeing an “F” to get your attention.

Second, follow the bias. The ALA does have a legitimate concern about the health impacts of certain air pollutants, especially ozone, on people with asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. They appear willing to exaggerate the situation to build public pressure for ever-tighter air quality standards.

The ALA Annual Air Quality Report Card will be released soon. You might want to view it more skeptically this year, and look at the data yourself. You can find the data at the EPA Air Quality Daily Statistics website.

EDITOR’S NOTE: David T. Stevenson is the director of the Caesar Rodney Institute’s Center for Energy Competitiveness and a Presidential EPA transition team member.

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