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Clean air agency data a better measure of air quality than county-by-county health rankings report

Mar. 23, 2016

The latest annual county-by-county health rankings report is out, and like a lot of people, we like to see how we stack up.

But while rankings are handy for a high-level look at how we’re doing relative to other areas, they often aren’t very good at analyzing specific conditions.

When it comes to air quality, that’s the case with the County Health Rankings & Roadmaps report.

Just looking at the rankings for air quality, you’d think Whatcom County had the worst air quality in the state. But that simply isn’t true. If you look at our data – the data used by the Washington Department of Ecology and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to set health-based air quality standards – we actually have some of the best air quality – not just in the state, but in the country.

There are exceptions, of course: The Columbia Valley urban growth area in northern Whatcom County is a two-square-mile area with significant air quality problems from wood smoke. We are working with the community to improve conditions there. And last summer, our region had possibly the worst particulate pollution we’ve ever seen – a result of the devastating wildfires in California, British Columbia and Eastern Washington.

The reason for the discrepancy is that the County Health Rankings & Roadmaps report doesn’t measure air quality the same way we do. What it uses may be fine for the 10,000-foot-view of air quality across a large area as one of multiple weighted health factors to produce overall health rankings. But it’s not a good measure of actual air quality.

For that, you’d want to look at our data because local air quality is what we do.

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