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Air Pollution Information Activities at State and Local Agencies -- United States, 1992

Because air pollution is a pervasive environmental health problem in the United States, one of the national health objectives for the year 2000 is to increase from 49.7% to 85.0% the proportion of persons who live in counties that have not exceeded any air quality standard during the previous 12 months (1). Public support for air pollution control efforts is critical if this national health objective is to be achieved. To characterize public health information activities related to air pollution, in 1992, the State and Territorial Air Pollution Program Administrators (STAPPA) and the Association of Local Air Pollution Control Officials (ALAPCO), with the assistance of CDC, conducted a survey of state and local air pollution control agencies. This report summarizes the findings of that survey.

In July 1992, a questionnaire was mailed to 225 state, territorial, and local air pollution control agencies. Agencies that did not respond were contacted by telephone. The questionnaire sought information on attainment of National Ambient Air Quality Standards, publication of an air quality index (e.g., the Pollutant Standards Index {PSI} *), issuance of forecasts or warnings, communication with outside health officials, distribution of educational materials, evaluation of health information, and air pollution issues of greatest concern to the community. Of the 55 STAPPA agencies, 48 (87%) responded to the questionnaire; of the 170 ALAPCO agencies, 149 (88%) responded (overall response rate: 88%). Together, responding agencies represented 49 states, the District of Columbia, and the Virgin Islands. No agency was represented more than once.

Of the 197 respondents, 134 (68%) represented jurisdictions that had exceeded one or more National Ambient Air Quality Standards during the preceding 3 years. State and local agencies that represented such areas were more likely to calculate the PSI -- a summary air quality measure -- than were other agencies (76% compared with 43%). Air quality information was more likely to be released to the media in areas that exceeded one or more of the ambient air quality standards (84% compared with 48%). Forecasts regarding air quality were issued by about half (48%) of the responding agencies but usually when conditions were predicted to exceed one or more federal standards.

One third (34%) of the responding agencies employed a health professional (e.g., physician, nurse, epidemiologist, or health educator). Agencies employing a health professional were more likely to communicate with physicians or health officials about the health risks of air pollution (79% compared with 49%).

Most agencies (86%) distributed educational materials or information about the health effects of air pollution to persons seeking such information. Methods included pamphlets, press releases, and educational materials for schools. Distributed materials were produced locally or by organizations such as the American Lung Association and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Thirteen percent of the responding agencies indicated they had evaluated the effectiveness of their health information activities.

Respondents were asked to name a maximum of three air pollution issues they believed were of highest public concern in their communities; responses were not totally exclusive. The most frequently cited concern was toxic air pollutants (air toxics {i.e., pollutants not regulated by the National Ambient Air Quality Standards} were listed by 81 agencies, and unspecified industrial emissions by 20 agencies). The second most commonly cited concern was ozone or urban smog (listed by 61 agencies). Automobile or mobile source emissions in general (a major contributor to urban smog) were listed by 44 agencies; carbon monoxide (a pollutant emitted mainly by automobiles) was specifically cited by 24 agencies. The third most commonly cited concern was particulate matter; 45 agencies listed particulates or visibility, and 17 listed dust. The combustion of materials was also cited by several agencies: open burning by 25, and waste incineration and woodsmoke by 22 each. Other concerns included odors (35 agencies), indoor air quality (14), and the economic impact of regulations (14).

Reported by: State and local air pollution control officials. SW Becker, State and Territorial Air Pollution Program Administrators/Association of Local Air Pollution Control Officials, Washington, DC. Air Pollution and Respiratory Health Br, Div of Environmental Hazards and Health Effects, National Center for Environmental Health, CDC.

Editorial Note

Editorial Note: The National Ambient Air Quality Standards were developed to protect the public from the adverse health effects of air pollution, such as lung diseases (including asthma), cancer, eye irritation, and other disorders (1). The report Healthy People 2000 underscored the need for educating the public about environmental risks and rational approaches for reducing those risks (1).

In October 1991, the EPA designated 98 metropolitan areas across the United States as not having attained standards for ozone (i.e., above the National Ambient Air Quality Standard). In addition, 76 areas were designated as nonattainment for carbon monoxide; 70, for particulate matter; 50, for sulfur dioxide; and 11, for lead (2). In 1991, more than 84 million persons in the United States lived in counties that exceeded at least one National Ambient Air Quality Standard (3).

Forecasts of expected air quality may be helpful to persons who should limit the time they spend outdoors. However, the findings in this report indicate that many agencies do not release the PSI or forecasts to the media, including some agencies in areas where a federal standard has been exceeded. The usefulness of the PSI or forecast also depends on whether local media disseminate the information on a regular basis.

Health education and risk communication are important activities for air pollution control agencies, whether they function outside or inside health agencies. The findings in this report indicate that state and local air pollution agencies have identified a variety of complex potential health hazards they consider to be of concern to the public. Although the PSI can be used to convey summary information about the short-term health risks of certain pollutants, additional education and information methods are needed to adequately address public concerns about these and other air quality issues, particularly chronic health effects.

The state health agency is the designated lead agency responsible for implementing the Clean Air Act in only 10 states: Colorado, Hawaii, Kansas, Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Utah (4). Many state and local air pollution agencies have no health professionals on staff and may lack the expertise to develop and implement effective public information programs regarding the health risks of air pollution. In 1988, the Institute of Medicine recommended that state and local health agencies strengthen their capacities for identifying, understanding, and controlling environmental problems as health hazards (5). The results of this survey suggest that some areas may improve public information on air pollution health risks by strengthening environmental health programs in state and local health departments and by improving coordination between health and environmental agencies.

References

  1. Public Health Service. Healthy people 2000: national health promotion and disease prevention objectives. Washington, DC: US Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, 1990; DHHS publication no. (PHS)91-50213.

  2. US Environmental Protection Agency. Air quality designation and classifications: final rule. Federal Register 1991;56:56694.

  3. US Environmental Protection Agency. National air quality and emissions trends report, 1991. Research Triangle Park, North Carolina: US Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards, Technical Support Division, 1992.

  4. Public Health Foundation. 1991 Public health chartbook. Washington, DC: Public Health Foundation, 1991.

  5. Institute of Medicine. The future of public health. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1988.

    • The PSI converts the daily measured concentrations of five major pollutants (ozone, carbon monoxide, particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide, and sulfur dioxide) into a number on a scale of 0 500. The index value of 100 corresponds to the National Ambient Air Quality Standard for that pollutant. Intervals on the PSI scale are associated with descriptive terms (e.g., good {0 50},

moderate {50 100}, or unhealthful {100 200}).

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