This NRDC Report… Cough! Cough! … Has a Few Problems

sneezing_wheezingby James A. Bacon

Richmond has been awarded the dubious distinction of being the “sneeziest and wheeziest” city in the United States in a report issued yesterday by the Natural Resources Defense Council. And thanks to global warming, says the NRDC, conditions are likely to get worse.

Scientific studies have also shown that our changing climate could favor the formation of more ozone smog in some areas and increase the production of allergenic pollen such as that released by the ragweed plant, the principal source of pollen associated with allergic rhinitis. This is bad news for allergy sufferers and asthmatics because both ragweed pollen and high levels of ozone smog can trigger asthma attacks and worsen allergic symptoms in adults and children.

Richmond, as it happens, suffers from both high ozone and high ragweed counts. As the report notes, Richmond was  was named the 2014 top U.S. Asthma Capital by the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA. “Contributing to Richmond’s status as the number one Asthma Capital are high pollen levels, death rates from asthma, and numbers of asthma-related emergency room visits.”

As temperatures slowly ratchet higher, one would conclude from the parade of horribles revealed by study after study like this one that a warmer climate heaps nothing but harm harm and misery upon mankind. No doubt that explains why Americans have been migrating en mass from southern states to northern in search of cooler temperatures. … Oh, what’s that? It’s the reverse? Americans are migrating to states with warmer temperatures? Does not compute.

Permit me to play devil’s advocate. The NRDC may be absolutely correct in its appraisal but, at the risk of being denounced once more as a “climate denier,” it can’t hurt to subject its claims to some critical analysis.

The NRDC makes this interesting statement:

Richmond, Virginia, is—for the second time in a row—number one on this list. Although Richmond does not have an ozone monitoring station and is not ragweed-positive, we include it on the map because of its status as the number one Asthma Capital, as published by  the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.

Henrico County air quality monitoring station
Henrico County air quality monitoring station

Although the city of Richmond does not have an ozone monitoring station, neighboring Henrico and Chesterfield counties do. And what do those stations reveal? Despite higher temperatures, ozone levels got better, not worse, over the decade of 1999 to 2009.  The chart below, based on EPA data, show how the region’s average ozone levels declined markedly over that decade — dipping below the Virginia mean and the national mean.


A quick Internet search did not reveal comparable data for more recent years. But an American Lung Association ranking listed the average high-ozone days between 2010 and 2012 for several localities with monitoring stations. Chesterfield County had weighted average of 3.3 and Henrico of 6.2. Ozone in Northern Virginia was much worse: Alexandria had a weighted average of 8.5 high-ozone days, Arlington 11.2, and Fairfax 12.8. Yet the incidence of asthma and COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) cases as a percentage of the population was virtually identical.


Obviously, there are many factors other than ozone associated with asthma. What might those be? WebMD lists these risk factors:

  • Endotoxins in house dust.
  • Animal proteins (particularly cat and dog allergens), dust mites, cockroaches, fungi, and mold. Changes that have made houses more “energy-efficient” over the years are thought to increase exposure.
  • Indoor air pollution such as cigarette smoke, mold, and noxious fumes from household cleaners and paints.
  • Environmental factors such as pollution, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, ozone, cold temperatures, and high humidity.

Whoah? What was that? Cold temperatures?

Yes, ozone is on the list. But it’s only one factor among many.

According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation, race is a major risk factor, too.  In recent years, the greatest rise in asthma was among African American children: One in six African-American children have asthma. For African Americans, the rate of emergency department visits is 330% higher and the rate of hospitalizations is 220% higher compared to whites. “Ethnic differences in asthma prevalence, morbidity and mortality are highly correlated with poverty, urban air quality, indoor allergens, and lack of patient education and inadequate medical care.”

Bacon’s bottom line: If we want to attack the  high incidence of asthma in the Richmond region, we’re probably better off focusing on the socio-economic conditions of African-Americans than worrying about the impact of climate change on ozone and ragweed. Those are only two factors among many affecting asthma, and arguably far from the most important. In any case, thanks to coal-plant emissions controls and cleaner automobile engines, ozone levels probably will continue to decrease.

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  1. larryg Avatar

    I know that Jim is going to drop his teeth and snap his suspenders but I mostly agree.

    The enviro-weenies are playing the supposed effects of global warming for all they are work. I’d be surprised and BO and bad breath and hemorrhoids don’t get drawn into the maw of GW-geddon.

    this kind of thing actually undermines real legitimate concerns in my view and just deepens the divide between the two sides.

    and don’t get me wrong – the actually negative impacts could be far worse than we think – on other aspects that we are not paying attention to.

    oh.. by the way – allergies need warm AND Dry -as in Arizona and locale.

    Atlanta is already a hell-hole weather-wise in summer – heat AND humidity AND bugs! Everyone hides in air conditioned havens unless you have a porch on a hill where breezes blow and some appropriate beverages.

    1. Indeed, my jaw fell all the way to the ground!

    2. Acbar Avatar

      LarryG, you are so right on target — the problem with the NRDC is they have always gone after donations from their True Believer Core, the only ones who will accept their claims uncritically, while abandoning any appeal to the middle of the road guy who might read what they publish and learn something if they had a reputation for balance and thorough research. In other words they are fund raisers not journalists. [Although after Rolling Stone on UVA, not sure where that line is any more.] So, they play the GW card not to persuade, but to raise cash.

      Not that there aren’t a few on the right end of the spectrum also so inclined!

  2. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    I just spent the morning in a legislative commission meeting that included a presentation on ozone in Virginia, the major progress on reducing it in recent years, the additional progress we should see as the new power plant rules and some new gasoline formulation rules kick in — all indications that if ozone is the culprit on asthma, then the number of cases should be rapidly diminishing. But everything is the fault of global warming, Jim. The New England Patriots should just admit they deflated the footballs because they expected enough global warming by game time to return the balls to regulation pressure….Michael Mann did the math.

  3. larryg Avatar

    well they screwed up the penalty – it should have fit the crime.

    a whole season with over-inflated balls.. for him…

  4. TBill Avatar

    Aside from the Clean Power Plan, the EPA is also proposing tough new restrictions on ozone. To some extent, I question the need since the ozone is coming down due to cleaner cars are reduced coal use. For example, EPA has already required reduced sulfur in gasoline by about 2017. The lower sulfur will improve the auto catalytic converter performance as we go forward. Given the downward trend in ozone, I am thinking additional ozone controls may be another controversial (too strict?) EPA rule when it comes out. We shall see.

  5. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Is is Natural Resources Defense Council, not “National.”

    1. Thanks. Always good to have a proof reader!

  6. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Glad you agree.

  7. This is good and well-deserved analysis. Environmental groups can get careless, and although on the whole NRDC has been pretty sound over the years (and I recall when they started), enthusiasm and dogma can still get in the way of sound and useful reports. This report is neither. I’m going to forward your analysis to the head of NRDC, whom I knew long ago when she was very junior.

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