A View From the Cheap Seats

October 15, 2008

Imbecility – 101


It’s been a while since we’ve slapped down the Chicago Tribune and its cub environmental reporter, Michael Hawthorne, so it’s about time that we rectified the situation.

And when we say “Chicago Tribune”, we are of course referring to the New Look Chicago Tribune! The “We’ve Got Primary Colors!” Chicago Tribune. The “See The Big Shiny Pictures!” Chicago Tribune. The “Don’t Worry, No Words Greater Than Two Syllables Here!!” Chicago Tribune. It’s kind of like “Highlights! For Kids” on newsprint, with Hawthorne playing the role of Goofus.

(Side note, if you are one of the dozen or so people still subscribing to the Trib, here’s a tip to lower your subscription costs: call and tell them you would like to cancel. My bride, who is among the dozen, has done so twice and, each time, they cut our rate. Given another year or so, they’ll be paying us to take the paper. Try it, and tell them Trzupek sent you).

Anyway, on September 23 Hawthorne and Darnell Little authored a “Tribune Watchdog Report” under the bold headline: “Chicago’s Toxic Air”. According to the authors, “People living in Chicago and nearby suburbs face some of the highest risks in the nation for cancer, lung disease and other health problems linked to toxic chemicals pouring from industry smokestacks, according to a Tribune analysis of federal data.”

A Tribune analysis of any kind of data is about as worthwhile as a Fidel Castro probe into Cuban voter fraud, but Hawthorne and Little are sure they are right. They discovered a USEPA database, the Risk-Screening Environmental Indicators (RSEI) model to be exact, and (you can almost hear them yelling “gotcha!”) they come to an alarming conclusion after poking around a bit. Namely: “Those who look up Cook County will see it ranked worst in the nation for dangerous air pollution, based on 2005 data. The Tribune also found Chicago was among the 10 worst cities in the U.S.”

There are so many imbecilic things about those conclusions, and about the article in general, that it is going to be impossible to point them all out, even in the ample space that The Examiner generously allows your humble correspondent. But, let’s get started on a few.

Hawthorne and Little clearly don’t understand what they’re looking at, as they pore, wide-eyed, through the data. At the most basic level, the RSEI model only accounts for industrial sources of pollution but – shocker – industry contributes only about one-fourth of the air pollution emissions in an urban area like Chicago. So no Mikey, you can’t conclude that Chicago’s air is “among the worst” because you’re not looking at anything close to the entire picture. As a matter of fact, big industrial sources – the tall smokestack plants – have relatively little effect locally, because their emissions disperse far and wide.

The pair also doesn’t seem to notice that the RSEI data is based on another data set, called the Toxics Release Inventory, which does not account for all polluters, but only a select group, further limiting this already limited universe. But hey, all they would have had to do was to actually read what is posted at the website to get a clue, which was just too much of a bother, apparently.
Wouldn’t it be nice if, instead of drawing wild conclusions based on a screening tool that is not intended to analyze actual air quality, it was possible to get actual data about air quality? Gosh, would that be – like – actually relevant?

Well, guess what? USEPA operates a network of over 5,000 ambient air monitors across the nation and – what’s this? – a whole bunch of them monitor air toxics! Let’s take a look, shall we?

There are over 180 toxic air pollutants indentified by USEPA. Of these, some of the most significant in an urban setting are: formaldehyde and benzene (emitted by cars and trucks for the most part) and lead. “Fine” particulate, although not classified as a toxin, is also a health concern in most big cities.

According to USEPA’s actual monitors (not models), using 2007 data, Cook County was 116th (out of 198) for formaldehyde, 60th (out of 195) for lead, 128th (out of 366) for benzene, and 80th (out of 1,135) for “fine” particulate, in a nationwide comparison of monitoring site. Mind you this is actual data, not speculation based on a simplistic model, so one must be cautious. Still it doesn’t exactly sound like the end of the world that Hawthorne and Little described, does it?

But then, what do I know? I’m just a simple scientist, without the keen appreciation for data analysis and the scientific method for which journalists are renowned.

More to the point, despite Hawthorne and Little’s characterizations to the contrary, the air across the nation in general, and in Chicago in particular, has gotten progressively cleaner over the last 35 years and continues to get cleaner. Despite the pair’s ignorant insinuations, we have made remarkable, measurable progress in cleaning up the air shed in the Chicagoland metropolitan area. It’s an accomplishment that should make us all feel proud.

The worst part about this story, however, is the hatchet job that Hawthorne and Little do to one of the truly class acts in the Chicago business community: A. Finkl & Sons. The dynamic duo stops just short of accusing the company of creating a toxic death cloud and being closet racists, but only barely short.

Finkl is not, nor ever has been, a client of mine. But their reputation in the industrial world, as a responsible, caring part of the community is legendary. The steel forging shop they operate (not a “steel mill”, as described in the Tribune’s story) is a relatively minor player in the world of air pollution. With typical hysterical hyperbole, Hawthorne and Little claim that the plant “churns” heaps of toxic pollutants into the neighborhood, implying that Finkl is a step away from killing off the populace. It’s a ridiculous position, laughable to anyone who understands the actual science and how air pollution works.

It was a story written to sell papers, and – no doubt – to make Hawthorne’s radical environmentalist buddies happy. While I am sure that it was successful in the latter purpose, the way things are going for the Trib, no degree of outrageous sensationalism is going to help them with the former.


Leave a Comment »

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: