Updated approach to warn of unhealthy particulate levels draws fire

Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think a region in updating its air quality alert system would spark criticism, but it has.

According to an article in the Nov. 24, 2012 Los Angeles Times, the Los Angeles region’s South Coast Air Quality Management District on Nov. 24th announced it had issued its “first-ever no-burn alert.” I blogged on this a couple of posts back on Nov. 26th in “L.A. wintertime weather pattern prompts ‘no-burn’ alert and who’s minding your chimney?” As it turns out, that alert seems to have come off without a hitch.

Well, in Utah’s Salt Lake City region, on the other hand, no such luck, apparently.

Salt Lake City, Utah

“Just as the first Red Day of the winter season was announced, state officials Monday unveiled plans to abandon the time-tested, three-color air quality alert system,” Deseret News correspondent John Hollenhorst wrote.

“Green, Yellow and Red Day declarations have guided Utahns through the winter air pollution season for the past two decades. Beginning in January, the state will move to a six-color system that attempts to more precisely delineate the health risks at each level of pollution.”

But not everyone is so sure.

Dr. Brian Moench, president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, countered that the alert system updating is both misleading and confusing, according to Hollenhorst.

“Moench said he believes the new system will send an inappropriate signal that people of ordinary health shouldn’t worry about moderate pollution levels.”

In citing Moench directly, Hollenhorst wrote: “‘The medical science is rock solid and has been over the last several years that air pollution actually harms everyone’s health, no matter how healthy they are,’ he said.”

But state officials feel, apparently, that all will benefit health-wise when the new system’s in place.

“Residents will be informed that they need to cut back on driving and burning at an earlier stage of an inversion, before the pollution gets too thick,” the Deseret News columnist noted.

The new air quality scale adds Orange, Violet and Brown to the existing and decades-old three-color air “pollution-alert days by particle concentration” scale.

As for the new scale, I’m at a loss in terms of making total heads or tails of it. I’m not at all clear how the Moderate (Yellow) and Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups (Orange) categories correspond with the numbers posted below those categories, with or without the placement of the vertical dotted line through the Moderate section.

The Air Quality Index information on the State of Utah’s Web site, meanwhile, on the page with the heading Choose Clean Air, with regard to “What the Numbers Mean” reference, is decisive in my opinion.

For that Air Quality Index, the categories and “ranges” are as follows:

0-50 – Good (Green)

51-100 – Moderate (Yellow)

101-150 – Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups (Orange)

151-200 – Unhealthy (Red)

201-300 – Very Unhealthy (Violet)

301-500 – Hazardous (Burgundy)

Can it get any more definitive than that?

– Alan Kandel