Cheap Seats 2017
Peering through the smog - 08/09
By Rich Trzupek
Another day, another ridiculously exaggerated story of environmental doom. The headline screeching from the top of the fold in the Sunday Chicago Tribune proclaimed: “Smog follows Chicagoans on vacation”. In reality, what’s stalking Chicagoans heading up to Door County and beyond is not dirty air, but overly aggressive regulations.
Chicago Tribune environmental reporter Michael Hawthorne is a microcosm of everything that’s wrong with the way much of the mainstream media covers issues involving science, technology and the environment. Hawthorne has made a career out of selectively using data and employing emotional hyperbole to create stories that sound alarming to the untrained ear, but only rarely stand up to any sort of educated, in-depth examination.
Ten years ago, Hawthorne managed to whip up mass hysteria among the public and politicians – including a soon-to-be President of the United States and the current Mayor of Chicago – by claiming that a minor increase in treated wastewater discharged into Lake Michigan associated with a refinery expansion would doom the lake and poison our drinking water. That turned out not to be the case, as the Lake is as healthy as ever, but for the media: accountability is somebody else’s problem.
The smog-stalker tale that Hawthorne wove in the Sunday Trib contained all of the classic elements of the modern American environmental horror story: nebulous risk, unsourced conclusions, scientific ignorance and the inevitable, unavoidable media references – sometimes thinly veiled, sometimes outright accusations – to the powerful, heartless right-wing forces whose indifference to the fate of the planet is only exceeded by their willingness to abuse it in order to line their pockets.
“Smog” is shorthand for ozone, a compound that is most welcome in the stratosphere (about 40,000 feet up hereabouts) because it helps reduce our exposure to ultra-violet solar radiation, but undesirable in the troposphere, which includes the air we breathe, because it can exacerbate lung problems in certain cases if inhaled in high enough concentrations.
Hawthorne described ground-level ozone as: “…a hazy soup of pollution commonly known as smog”. That flowerily rhetoric makes no scientific sense. Ozone is not part of a “soup”, it’s a distinct, individual molecule that we chemists shorthand as “O3”. And while a sufficient concentration of ozone can indeed create an orange-tinged haze in urban areas, anyone who regularly travels by air and notices such things can tell you that the ozone haze associated with metropolitan areas has pretty much disappeared over the last ten years in America, Los Angeles excepted.
It is true, as Hawthorne asserts, that Chicagoland and many other large metropolitan areas have not been able to escape the “non-attainment” designation with respect to the ozone standard for many a year. Yet, according to EPA data, ozone concentrations have consistently dropped in Chicago and most every other big city over the last forty years. Unfortunately, the cleaner the air gets, the farther back EPA moves the goalposts. Chicago air meets the definition of clean with respect to ozone as originally defined by the EPA and as redefined under President Clinton. When redefined once more under the second President Bush, Chicago could not meet the standard consistently enough to be classified as being “in attainment” with the newest and most stringent ozone standard – barely.
The EPA has five classifications for urban areas that do not meet the current ozone standard, ranging from “Marginal” (the least worrisome) to “Extreme”. The Chicago area is designated as a “Moderate” non-attainment area for ozone, one step above marginal in the severity scale.
The excuse given for lowering the ozone standard again and again is that the EPA has suddenly discovered that the old standard was not protective of human health! How do they know this? They don’t, but that doesn’t stop environmentalists and hacks like Hawthorne from mindlessly parroting such rubbish.
In fact, EPA knows that exposure to much higher levels of ozone than the Obama-era 70 ppb standard are inconsequential. They know this because for years they conducted experiments during which elderly subjects suffering from asthma were exposed to 400 ppb of ozone for about two hours, while performing moderate exercise. The results? In a letter to the University of North Carolina Institutional Review Board reviewing the ethics of this human experimentation EPA said the following: “The EPA has been conducting controlled human exposure to air pollutants on the UNC campus for more than 30 years. During that time more than 6,000 volunteers have been studied without a single serious adverse event being observed”.