OUT: Ozone; IN: Particulate Matter

It’s the go-to solution when you need to complain about air pollution: particulate matter less than 2.5 microns in aerodynamic diameter, aka Fine Particles aka PM-2.5. It’s dangerous! It’s deadly! Removing it from the air will usher in previously unforeseen levels of economic prosperity! We know this to be true because the academic elite and the ruling class assure us it is so. If you are inclined to question the so-called “science” please shut the hell up and stand in the corner.

Oddly, PM-2.5 didn’t always have the starring role in the nation’s air pollution drama that it enjoys today. Shoot, for the first twenty-six years of the Clean Air Act it wasn’t even officially on stage.

The star of the air pollution world for the first thirty or so years was urban ozone, sometimes called smog. Ozone is welcome in the stratosphere where it blocks strong ultraviolet radiation. Not so much in the troposphere though, because that’s where we do our breathing. Ozone doesn’t get along with lungs very well.

Welcome to L.A., the nation's bogeyman.

If you’re old enough, you can remember flying into big cities on hot summer days and passing through a layer of atmosphere that had a decided orange tinge. What you were witnessing was the interaction between two air pollutants, nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds that form unwelcome ozone in the troposphere during hot, relatively calm days.

One doesn’t see that phenomenon much anymore this side of the Los Angeles basin. Since it’s located in what is essentially a geological bowl, L.A. is about the greatest ozone incubator in the United States. Everywhere else, programs to reduce emission of nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds were wildly successful. From the perspective of many environmental groups, perhaps too successful. As more and more urban centers came into compliance with new ozone standards, it became harder and harder to keep up the scare. People aren’t apt to open up their wallets for a healthy planet. The Sierra Club et al. need the scare to survive.

Presidents Clinton, Bush number 2 and Obama tried to help solve the problem by redefining clean air to include lesser and lesser concentrations of ozone. Like it or not, there’s always going to be some ozone in the air we breathe. Less as you live farther from the equator where temperatures don’t support ozone formation. More if you live closer to the earth’s relatively hot midriff. (Even more should you decide to purchase an “air purifier” for you home that claims to accomplish that goal by generating ozone. Go figure.)

Continually redefining “clean air” by reducing the amount of allowable ozone in the troposphere didn’t work out as planned either. Big urban areas kept making reductions in emissions. Even those that couldn’t quite hit the ridiculously low ozone standard that Obama’s EPA implemented could still point to massive overall reductions in ozone formation over the decades.

Less ozone, more asthma?

It was also harder and harder to play the asthma card, which is as important to environmental NGOs as the race card is to Democrats. You can’t keep wringing your hands about ozone causing asthma when we’ve got fifty years of data that shows steadily decreasing ozone generation and steadily increasing incidences of asthma. It is famously true that correlation is not necessarily causation, but in this case we don’t even have correlation.

So, the spotlight gradually shifted to PM-2.5. The EPA established a new National Ambient Air Quality Standard (NAAQS) for the pollutant in 1997. That standard was subsequently lowered twice, in 2006 and again in 2012. In 2020 the EPA reviewed the PM-2.5 standard again, as it is required to do for all NAAQS every five years and decided that the 2012 standards were low enough. Indeed the PM-2.5 NAAQS is now so low that it’s approaching background levels in many areas. But now the EPA has reversed itself – can’t imagine why – and is taking another look at lowering an already ridiculously low standard.

Here's the thing about PM-2.5: it’s an all-purpose weapon in the hands of pr-savvy NGOs. It’s everywhere and it can be – and is – blamed for any illness involving the lungs. When EPA does its peculiar arithmetic to demonstrate how much money a new regulation is going to save the nation, they trot out PM-2.5. Their logical progression is as follows: 1) numerous studies show that PM-2.5 is related to respiratory illnesses, 2) reducing PM-2.5 in the atmosphere will reduce respiratory illnesses by “N” amount, 3) fewer respiratory illnesses mean less hospitalizations and longer lives, 4) less hospitalizations saves consumers “X” dollars, 5) longer lives are worth “Y” dollars, and 6) X + Y = a bagillion dollars!

You can’t prove that any of this actually happens. But, you can’t disprove it either. Claiming monetary savings by reducing PM-2.5 is practically required to justify any sort of rule-making these days. EPA promulgated the Mercury and Air Toxic Standards (MATS) in 2011, a regulation aimed at reducing mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants. It was tough to find economic benefit in reducing mercury emissions, especially since the vast majority of mercury in the atmosphere originates in coal-fired power plants in China and India. So they turned to PM-2.5. It seems that the controls that lower mercury emissions will also lower PM-2.5 emissions Who knew! The majority of the “savings” that EPA attributes to MATS—$37 to $90 billion per year, if you believe them—comes from incidental PM-2.5 reductions. They did the same dance when the Boiler MACT rules, which affect industrial boilers of all kinds, were first promulgated. PM-2.5 reductions again “paid” for the cost of the rule.

Blame nature, not Man.

Amazing stuff this PM-2.5. One could make a fortune just by removing it from the air, with the side benefit that we would all then pretty much become immortal. But here’s something EPA never brings up when it’s championing the value of PM-2.5 reductions, or passing new rules that will “reduce” their presence in the air we breathe. The biggest source of PM-2.5 emissions, according to EPA’s own data is not industry. Nor is it mobile sources. The biggest source of PM-2.5 in the atmosphere are natural (biogenic) sources and fires. The latter category includes forest fires and controlled burns. About 75 percent of all the PM-2.5 in the air we breathe comes from natural sources and fires.

Claiming that reducing PM-2.5 emissions from industrial sources will have this magically profitable effect on the American economy is a nothing but a scam. Now, more than ever, industrial and mobile sources have less and less to do with the PM-2.5 in the air we breathe. If the politicians and regulators who piously claim that “they follow the science” truly did, you’d think they would admit that.

Spinning the Environmentalist Agenda: a Primer

A recent edition of the Sunday Chicago Tribune featured a story with the provocative headline “Chicago Air Dirtier in July than Notoriously Smoggy LA”, with the subhead “It didn’t improve during the lockdown, and more unhealthy days are coming." The story that followed was equal parts dishonest, foolish and lazy. But it provides this writer with a stellar example with which to demonstrate how deceptive environmental journalism is routinely fashioned by today’s mainstream media.

It’s no secret that mainstream media coverage of politics is unapologetically agenda-driven these days, but I’m not sure the public realizes how deeply that cancer has infected the MSM’s coverage of science and environmental topics. Let’s put "climate change" to the side for a moment. Politically-correct climate change coverage is symptom of the disease that metastasized decades ago when legacy journalists grew blind to the distinctions that separate healthy environmental protection from irrational ecological puritanism.

The dishonesty that infects MSM coverage of science and the environment is rarely apparent to the general public. Why should it be? Most of the deceptions involve technical points that appear too complex or obscure to pore over. Worse, the most skilled deceptions don’t involve outright lies, but skillful arrangement of only those facts that support the narrative. It’s not fake news so much as it is selective storytelling. The author of the doomsday yarn featured in the Sunday Trib, environmental writer Michael Hawthorne, is a master of this particular art.

In his piece, Hawthorne implies that Chicago’s air is now chronically unhealthy and is doomed to be so for a long time to come. He concludes that usual suspects are to blame for this sorry state of affairs: Donald Trump and climate change. And, of course, there is no shortage of supporting quotes from hand-picked “experts” and selective use of data to buttress the argument.

So, let’s start with that headline, is Chicago’s air quality now worse than the chronically smog-filled L.A. basin? To find out, we have to examine relevant data. To do that, we should start by understanding what the data is telling us.

A convenient way to look at air quality data is a metric the EPA has long used called the Air Quality Index, or AQI. The AQI is a comparison between actual readings by air quality monitors in the EPA system and the target concentrations that officially define what is clean air for a variety of air pollutants. These target concentrations are known as National Ambient Air Quality Standards, or NAAQS. An AQI score less than 100 means that the highest monitor readings that day did not exceed the applicable NAAQS. Such days are described as “good” or “moderate” depending on how far below the NAAQS the worst case monitoring data proved to be. An AQI score greater than 100 is described as some degree of “unhealthy.”

There are really only two air pollutants that routinely cause NAAQS exceedances in urban areas: fine particulate and ozone. Fine particulate, officially known as PM-2.5 and for some reason known only to Hawthorne and God as “soot,” consists of very, very small airborne particles about 1/40th the diameter of a human hair. Ozone, sometimes called smog, is produced from an interaction between two air pollutants. The first is oxides of nitrogen, or NOx, that is generated by forms of combustion, be it industrial boilers, your car’s engine, a forest fire, etc. The second is Volatile Organic Compounds, or VOC, which describes organic vapors of all kinds, from gasoline fumes, to paint thinners to the solvents used in nail polish. When these two pollutants have an opportunity to interact and a relatively hot and windless day provides the energy and environment for the right reactions to occur, ozone forms. Ozone in the upper stratosphere is a good thing, protecting us from ultraviolet light. This sort of ozone, much of which stays low in the troposphere where it can be inhaled is not desirable.

It should be noted at this point that the reason ozone and fine particulate are the most problematic pollutants in urban areas is not because emissions related to either have increased over the decades. The opposite is true: emission rates of ozone precursors and fine particulate have steadily and dramatically dropped in the United States since the Clean Air Act was first passed in 1970. It’s the definition of clean air that has changed. Administrations of both parties have steadily reduced NAAQS for these pollutants again and again, effectively moving the goal-posts to points that make compliance a distance speck on the horizon.

Now that you have earned your official air quality ranger merit badge, we can dive into Hawthorne’s claims. Let’s start with fine particulate. Here is a plot of worst case fine particulate PM-2.5 data for the greater Chicagoland metropolitan area for 2020, through July 13:

And here’s the Los Angeles basin for the same time period:

The LA monitors pop the limit seven times in the selected time period, while Chicago monitors do so only twice. And what might be the cause of that big peak that makes for the two days in July that both LA and Chicago monitors showed exceedances? The dates of the exceedances might provide a clue: July 4 and July 5. In his story, Hawthorne observes that “Independence Day celebrations added to the (air quality) problem”. A more realistic appraisal would be that Independence Day celebrations were the problem.

It’s also important to note that neither industry nor transportation sources contribute much to PM-2.5 pollution any longer. According to EPA data assembled during the Obama administration, about 80 percent of PM-2.5 emissions are generated by “miscellaneous” sources like natural activity, forest fires, agriculture, use of consumer products, etc.

This brings us to ozone. While it is true that June and July have been warmer on the average than mean temperatures in Chicago over the last twenty years, temperatures have not been outside of normal bounds. And though Chicago has seen a jump in ozone concentrations, there’s really no comparison to L.A. area ozone concentrations:

Through July 13, the Chicagoland area logged 16 “unhealthy” days based on ozone AQI. The L.A. Basin had 46 such days in the same time period, 6 of which exceeded the single worst ozone AQI day recorded in Chicago in 2020.

One question should remain in a genuinely curious journalist’s mind: even if Chicago’s air quality isn’t worse than Los Angeles’ – which it clearly is not – there has been a blip in ozone concentrations in the Chicagoland area. If that’s not the result of climate change or the president MSM journalists are sworn to hate, what is the cause? To quote Bob Dylan: the answer my friends is blowing in the wind.

We learned earlier that ozone forms when NOx, VOC and sunlight interact on relatively hot, windless days. In most places, the sum of the complex chemical reactions that produce ozone can be thought of as NOx playing the role of the “ore” than yields ozone, while VOC acts as the “pick” that “mines” the ore. In most places. Not in Chicago. In Chicago the prevailing winds and the location of Lake Michigan on the normally downwind side of local weather patterns can change this equation substantially. In many circumstances NOx emissions don’t matter all that much and in some of those they are even beneficial, reducing rather than increasing ozone formation in the Chicagoland air-shed. In recognition of this unique atmospheric chemistry, the USEPA issued a “NOx waiver” to Illinois back in the '90s that allowed the Agency to ignore NOx emissions as they related to ozone formation in the Chicagoland metropolitan area.

The waiver has since been revoked, but the science remains unchanged. Once the lockdown in Illinois began, monitoring data shows that ambient concentrations of NO2 (the portion of NOx that EPA monitors) dropped by about two-thirds compared to seasonal norms, as would be expected with the corresponding drop in traffic and industrial activity. The evidence thus strongly suggests that neither climate change nor the Trump administration is responsible for the odd spike in Chicago area ozone, but rather the odd meteorology of the area itself. Don’t expect Michael Hawthorne or the Chicago Tribune to consider that possibility however. For them, it’s all about the narrative or it’s about nothing at all.