Take a deep breath

Published 10:03 pm Monday, May 9, 2011

At first, the news was startling and somewhat worrisome.

Suffolk has received a failing grade from the American Lung Association for the breathability of its air. The level of ozone in the city’s air during the period from 2007 to 2009 was far enough below acceptable standards to be considered unhealthy, according to a report from the organization, which monitored air quality at locations around the United States to determine which communities have the best and which have the worst.

Therein lies the first problem. Though it measured air samples from Suffolk to Honolulu and was able to determine that Los Angeles has the most unhealthy air in America, back in Hampton Roads, the association was for some reason able to get a full set of data only from Suffolk. There’s no way to compare Suffolk’s country air with, for example, that of the urban gridlock in Portsmouth. It seems a safe assumption that Suffolk’s air is more breathable than Portsmouth’s and that most locations in Suffolk have higher quality air than could be found in most parts of, say, Virginia Beach.

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And that leads to another weakness in the study. Measured near the landfill or at the intersection of Route 58 and Holland Road by the first stoplight before French Fry Alley, Suffolk’s air quality could be expected to suffer from the environmental effects of trash and traffic, respectively. Measured immediately after the application of fertilizer to a piece of farmland, breathability would surely suffer. But most folks in the city would be hard pressed to identify a long string of days in which the air quality was consistently bad in widespread areas of the city.

In fact, not even the lung association could do so. Actually, the group’s study found Suffolk’s air quality to be unacceptable for 14 days during that three-year period. And even on those days, the air quality was unhealthy only for those with certain breathing problems, such as asthma. That’s less than 1.3 percent of the time, leaving 98.7 percent of the days with what was presumably acceptable air quality for everyone.

When 98.7 percent is a failing grade, one has to wonder about the grade curve. While the headlines announcing the new study’s results are sure to have caused some heavy breathing, there are too many unanswered questions about the study for us to recommend buying an oxygen mask quite yet.