Now It’s the HuffPo’s Turn to Blow the Story

Good grief, now it’s the Puffington Host’s turn to completely blow an air pollution story in exactly the same way the Wall Street Journal did last week, with a headline declaring “California’s Central Valley Slammed By Record Air Pollution.”  There’s no byline for this piece (CORRECTION: the byline, for Tracie Cone, is placed up by the photo, and not next to the main copy as the HuffPo confusingly does with wire stories), and apparently no editor bothered to check to see what the “record” level of air pollution for the central valley is or might be.

Instead, we’re treated to copy like this:

A dry December and January has stagnated air across California, but nowhere is the situation more serious than between Modesto and Bakersfield, where nearly every day dirty air has exceeded federal health standards.

It’s the worst air quality recorded in a dozen years, and it’s the unhealthiest kind— microscopic, chemical-laden particles that can get into lungs and absorbed into the bloodstream to create health risks in everyone, not just the young and infirm.

Data?  Data, anyone?  Buehler?  Buehler?

This is pathetic.  Once again, no one at the PuffHo can be bothered to check the easily available data from either the EPA or the California Air Resources Board (CARB).  If anyone bothered to check the data, they’d find that the claim that over the last two months the claim that “nearly every day dirty air has exceeded federal health standards” is completely false.

Okay, I know this gets tedious, but let’s go to the data. The CARB data sites are unwieldy, but for ozone in the San Joaquin Air Basin, the number of days the air basin has exceeded the ozone standard so far in 2012 is . . . zero.  Zip, zilch, nada.  The peak ozone level recorded so far the first week of this year is 0.051 parts per million, comfortably below the national standard of 0.075 ppm.  While the San Joaquin Air Basin exceeded the federal 8-hour ozone standard 132 days in 2011 compared to 122 in 2009 (and 115 in 2010), the peak recorded level in 2011 (0.109 ppm) was lower than the peak level in either 2009 (0.110 ppm) or 2010 (0.115 ppm).  So where’s the “record level” of air pollution again?

What’s the long term trend?  CARB’s 2011 data is preliminary, but the figure below shows the EPA’s data from the downtown Fresno ozone monitor, showing that although Fresno’s average is above the national standard, it has slightly declined over the last 20 years.  (I’ve added the trendline.)  Where’s the “record level” again?

Figure 1: Fresno 8-Hr. Average Ozone Level

The CARB website is right now returning an error message when you try to check for particulate levels for the last week.  But the long-term story for fine particulates (PM2.5) is embarrassing.  Figure 2 shows the number of days the San Joaquin Valley has exceeded the national PM2.5 standard over the last two decades.  While it bounces up and down, the long-term trend is clear.

Figure 2: Days Above National PM2.5 Standard, San Joaquin Air Basin

Even more embarrassing is a look at peak levels of PM2.5.  Let’s look at Fresno, which has only two EPA monitors with complete data.  Both monitors look like Figure 3, which shows that Fresno actually met the national standard for PM2.5 in 2010.  (2011 EPA data not yet available.)

Figure 3: Downtown Fresno Average PM2.5 Level

This just scratches the surface.  Nearly even sentence in this story contains something that is either wrong, misleading, or grossly exaggerated.  Like the phrase quoted above, “. . . create health risks in everyone, not just the young and infirm.”  Wrong.  Or the insinutation that high asthma rates in the central valley are caused by air pollution.  Wrong.  (I may comeback to this point in another post.)

Is it too much to ask journalists and editors to apply a minimal standard of data referencing, let alone asking skeptical questions of the advocacy groups whose press releases they are basically transcribing?  This is not just lazy journalism.  It is journalistic malpractice.



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