The 411 on AQI, monitor placement and more in Lois Henry op-ed

Bakersfield Californian op-ed writer Lois Henry, in “Valley air doesn’t look so bad when viewed with common sense,” if I have this straight, basically cautions readers to, in effect, take with a grain of salt tightening of certain air-pollutant standards as related to the Air Quality Index (AQI), etc. (The article in question is the third article in the grouping).

The aforesaid opinion-piece writer in said op-ed column elaborates, claiming the way that air quality is tracked is neither straightforward nor simple. (By “track,” it is presumed that what Ms. Henry is referring to in this particular instance is gauging the quality of the air via use of the AQI).

From this, what I understand Ms. Henry to mean is that, each time standards are revised, when this happens, a corresponding adjustment regarding the AQI reading is required to reflect what the revised standard is.

Take, for example, ozone. The federal standard for the corrosive gas, as measured over a period of eight hours, as of Oct. 1st last year, went from what had been 75 parts per billion (ppb) of air to a more health-protective 70 ppb. Or consider the daylong fine particulate matter, as another. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency revised this to a more health-protective 35 micrograms per cubic meter of air from its previous 65-micrograms-per-cubic-meter level. I wonder if the phrase “more health-protective” with Ms. Henry has any meaning.

Um, as I was saying, using the latest standard measures, the representative AQI for average fine particulate matter (PM 2.5 – fine particulate matter pollution less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter) measured over 24 hours above 35 micrograms per cubic meter of air and for ozone pollution a threshold greater than 70 parts per billion averaged over eight hours, is 101 which is characterized as “Unhealthy for Sensitive Individuals” or “Groups” (children, the elderly, people with respiratory and lung ailments).

On the not “simple” contention, I might agree. As for this not being a “straightforward” process, I’m inclined to do the opposite.

So, for the Bakersfield Californian correspondent, a question: What if air-quality standards were shifted the other way, that is, they were made more relaxed? Say, for example, the daylong fine particulate matter standard was revised downward from 35 micrograms per cubic meter to 65 micrograms or the standard for 8-hour ozone went from 70 ppb to 75 ppb. In case there’s a question, in so doing this would have just the opposite effect; that is, the effect being a less health-protective standard. I’d be interested in knowing what would be Ms. Henry’s assessment then.

Now add to that, irrespective of whatever standards are adopted, if air saw an increase in the concentration of a given pollutant – either ozone or fine particulate matter, whatever the case may be – over time regardless of the time span over which the specified pollutant was observed, say, from one hour to the next, one day to the next, what-have-you, would the editorial writer not be in agreement that the quality of the air had gotten worse? I’m curious.

As it happens, a little farther on in her commentary, Henry appears intent on pointing out how monitors had been “purposely placed” in locations that record pollutants at their highest levels and, at the same time, she seems thoroughly convinced that the levels of air pollution recorded at said monitor sites isn’t likely even remotely close to reaching the lungs of the majority of breathing humans. The sentence in question, written the way it is, well, I would have to say, I don’t disagree.

At this juncture in the discussion, if you happen to be wondering and even if you’re not, this is the same Lois Henry, by the way, who in an earlier column, insisted that “our air isn’t killing us.”

Ms. Henry, now hear this: For the record, by World Health Organization estimates, annually there are 7-plus-million early deaths worldwide attributed to the effects of polluted air.

At the risk of sounding somewhat snide notwithstanding, I am of the impression Ms. Henry would like proof.

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