January 2014: The America’s Health Rankings Annual Report and Air Pollution in Indiana
Editorial note: IDEM Assistant Commissioner Keith Baugues helped IDEM launch “Air Quality 101” in 2013, to inform the general public about issues, policies, regulations, and the quality of Indiana’s air. All articles remain available on the IDEM website. Eighteen articles were published in 2013. This is the first article of 2014.
An organization called the United Health Foundation released the 24th Annual America’s Health Rankings® in December 2013. While the report covers many different areas, my critique will focus only on the report’s ranking for each state based on air quality. There are many very educated people involved in putting together this report, but it appears that they missed the boat when they analyzed air quality data.
When you read the report you find that air quality is based solely on annual data for fine particles, those that are 2.5 microns in diameter (PM-2.5). Remember that there are several national ambient air quality standards (PM-10, PM-2.5, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, ozone, carbon monoxide, and lead) and some of these have different time averages. Cherry picking annual PM-2.5 levels to represent all air quality across the nation is misleading.
What is not explained is that the annual PM-2.5 levels in Indiana meet the national ambient air quality standards. Further the implication is, since the annual PM-2.5 levels for Indiana are 49th in the nation, that this is bad. As explained in other articles, it is extremely difficult to compare air quality levels from one state to another. Some states have very few monitors, while others have quite a few. Some states do not monitor for all of the criteria pollutants, while most do. Some states have a small manufacturing sector, while others, like Indiana, are highly industrialized.
By the end of 2010, Indiana was one of only 20 states to meet all U.S. EPA clean air standards for ozone and fine particulate matter then in effect. Many states do not meet the national ambient air quality standards for ozone and short-term PM-2.5. Why should they be ranked higher than Indiana? Without reading the report in detail you do not pick up these problems. An analogy that puts this in perspective is to say that your child is the worst in high school because he or she is getting a C in physical education. Your child is not failing with a C grade and you would be ignoring how he or she is doing in the other subjects. This kind of characterization is highly misleading at the least.
Unfortunately, very few people may actually take the time to read the full report. Others may hear about Indiana’s misleading 49th place ranking through news reports that may not include all of the facts. We need to do better at getting the truth out there. For example, Indiana operates more air quality monitoring sites per capita than any other state in the Midwest to ensure that the air is healthy for Hoosiers. The 81 different monitoring sites produce over 2.5 million data points each year. Monitoring data confirm that, since 2000, ozone levels have decreased over 10 percent and annual fine particle levels have decreased 25 percent. In 2009, all of Indiana’s 92 counties met U.S. EPA clean air standards for the first time since air standards were first enacted. Even as U.S. EPA continues to tighten the standards for ozone, fine particles, sulfur dioxide and lead, Indiana is well on its way to meeting them.
The 24th annual America’s Health Rankings®, at the very least, should only determine whether a state meets or does not meet the annual PM-2.5 standard. Rankings beyond that are not meaningful. While I am sure that there are many parts of this report that provide useful information, the air quality rankings need improvement so that they provide meaningful data.