Chicago air alerts unneeded, EPA's own data shows

August 21, 2013 (CHICAGO)

EPA officials say the air quality warning is the result of unhealthy pollution levels. The so-called "action day" warns of breathing problems, encourages some people to stay indoors and asks residents and businesses to take action to reduce pollution.

An investigation by the ABC7 I-Team has found that Illinois' air pollution warnings were unnecessary, at least according to the EPA's own data.

Over the years Chicago has through some hazy, throat-choking times here. If the past two days didn't seem too bad, that is because they weren't. There has to be a certain level of pollution for the state to declare an air quality warning. But the I-Team has learned that readings fell well below the danger level.

Despite that, for the first time this summer, state EPA officials posted warnings, making Tuesday and Wednesday air pollution action days.

"It's really good out here," said Chicago resident Arvette Faulkner. "Yeah, I like this weather, it's nice."

Faulker says she has asthma but is breathing easy even though there is a state air pollution action alert.

This could be the reason: Alerts are usually posted when pollution levels reach the orange, "unhealthy for sensitive groups," with air quality readings of more than 100.

Wednesday's air quality index is about normal, only 57 in the yellow or moderate range.

Tuesday's index reading, the first day of the pollution warning, hit 80 in the afternoon, still well below unsafe levels.

"Oh we do believe it was necessary," said Kim Wells, Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. "Although we failed to get excedances in the area, we actually think that is a good thing that we didn't hit excedance level. We were at least happy to get the information out to the public and let them take any precautions necessary."

The EPA's Kim Wells chairs Illinois Partners for Clean Air, a half-million dollar not-for-profit aimed at cutting harmful emissions.

She says predicting pollution warning days is similar to forecasting the weather.

"For the most part we have pretty good accuracy with the air quality forecast. We do forecast a full day in advance which puts us at a little bit of a disadvantage," said Wells.

As with weather reports, on bad air days people and businesses may change their plans.

"I question the system that is in place and declaring that," said Joliet resident David Talarico. "Sounds like if the numbers are not meeting the threshold there's a problem."

The state EPA does have a clean-air superhero, an actor they hire for events, to pass out shirts and coloring books, promote pollution-free living and be a goodwill ambassador for the EPA.

But what about the public relations of issuing an air warning some see as unnecessary?

"Actions that people are taking are still beneficial to the region, even though it didn't hit the levels, their contributions were still a benefit to the region," Wells said.

Contributions she says such as carpooling or taking public transportation, curbing electricity use and curtailing gas powered equipment and checking the efficiency of appliances.

For more information:

Illinois Partners for Clean Air

Illinois EPA Air Division

U.S. EPA Air Division

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