Opinion: Daily Journal

Wrong on Pollution Facts — Again

RALEIGH – It’s happened again. Someone has alleged that North Carolina is home to some of the dirtiest air in the United States. It has further been implied that ozone levels are worsening, that they are associated with high levels of asthma, and that low-density, auto-dependent development patterns are a main cause. These statements are either false or misleading. Yet they are widely repeated, and believed.

OK, enough with the generalities and the passive voice. A Wednesday story in The Charlotte Observer reported uncritically the contents of a report from the Chapel Hill-based Southern Environmental Law Center. It recycled the same old, flawed data suggesting that ozone levels in the Charlotte area among the highest in the country (without noting that our communities tend to have more monitors, which makes the state-by-state comparisons meaningless). And it recycled the same old, flawed proposals to address ozone pollution, such as incentives for carpooling and transit and regulating land-use to require more dense developments.

In a lurch towards the mauldin, the story quoted one Renee Reese, a resident of Charlotte who suffers from asthma and complained about walking outside on smoggy days. “I can feel the pollution throughout my body,” she is quoted as saying.

But ozone levels in Charlotte and the rest of the state have been more-or-less improving for some time. This fact tells us several things. First, it’s not clear why dramatic change in our lifestyle is needed to meet the (unnecessarily strict) new EPA standards for ozone. It seems likely that continued turnover of the automobile fleet, which results in lower emissions, will accomplish a great deal without any additional regulatory intervention.

Second, smog cannot explain a rising number of asthmatics, whether they be adults or children. Don’t let anyone tell you any different – it is not metaphysically possible. I do not mean to downplay the seriousness of being afflicted with asthma, or the possibility that smoggy days can aggravate the condition. But the asthma trend is not an argument for regulation, rail transit, Smart Growth, or banning leaf blowers.

Third, activists and policymakers who view growth and rising auto traffic as inconsistent with environmental improvement aren’t paying attention and shouldn’t be treated as credible sources of information or recommendations. For example, they think transit will reduce pollution, when it is more likely to increase it.

As I wrote in a previous column, the John Locke Foundation commissioned a statewide poll last year in which one of the questions probed whether voters thought North Carolina’s air quality had gotten better or worse during the past few decades. The correct answer, irrefutably, is “better.” But only 18 percent of North Carolinians knew that, while 63 percent said that air quality had worsened. One of the reasons for this gap between reality and perception is that North Carolinians read, hear, or see stories such as the one from Wednesday.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Reporters can and should seek alternative sources of information on environmental and regulatory issues. When a study comes out alleging some harm or asserting some conclusion, they should seek out analysts who might have a different take on the data offer balance and perspective.

And, yes, they should do this even when the publisher of the study is the John Locke Foundation.

Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation and publisher of Carolina Journal.