The sky is falling!  Well, maybe not, even though the American Lung Association (ALA) seems to be making that claim in relation to ozone pollution. Indeed, in a recent and well-publicized report, the organization flunked numerous counties’ air quality. But some simple facts about ozone pollution show the ALA study is fraught with several noteworthy flaws.

Studies of children, adults, and the elderly have shown that adverse effects appear when the ozone level reaches or exceeds 12 parts per million (ppm) for three or more hours, especially when accompanied by preexisting respiratory disease and physical activity. So the pollutant usually needs to be present for a length of time for it to have a significant effect on any individual.

Beyond that, there are several monitors within a county measuring ozone. This is because ozone levels can fluctuate even within a single county. When ozone rises in one section of the county, this does not mean that the whole county is at risk. 

Yet the ALA fails an entire county when only one monitor registers an episode of elevated air pollution — regardless of the violation’s length of time, or density of population in the area. 

Such recordings cannot realistically be seen as a health hazard, yet the ALA erroneously labels them as such. This confuses citizens in low exposure areas into believing they are breathing harmful air, even when their ozone level may not have been at an unsafe level for a sufficient amount of time to present any risk, and may not have even been elevated in their immediate locale. 

So should we really be worried about this exaggeration on the part of the ALA? Aren’t higher standards for air always better? Dr. Joel Schwartz of the Reason Public Policy Institute explained in a recent article why such exaggerations are actually detrimental.

“Ironically, ALA’s efforts could actually reduce Americans’ overall health and safety. The ALA report will encourage the public to demand unnecessary additional expenditures to clean up air that is already clean. But in a world of limited resources, society can address only some of the many risks people face. When society wastes effort on small or non-existent risks, fewer real problems get the attention they deserve, reducing our health and safety.”

So as is usually the case with many stories bearing bad environmental news, it appears the real pollution is in the hype, not in the air.