COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — An air quality study released in recent weeks rendering Columbus the “most polluted major U.S. city” left some Ohio planners and researchers — including at the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission — scratching their heads.  

Swiss air-quality tech firm IQAir ranked Columbus as No. 1 among what it classified as “major” U.S. cities with high concentrations of PM 2.5 in its annual global report. Columbus beat out Cincinnati and Cleveland for that pollutant — as well as New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, according to IQAir.

But as the news circulated on social media, MORPC Sustainability Officer Brandi Whetstone worried the data the firm highlighted “created a lot of confusion.” 

“When we looked at this IQAir report, it did cause us to pause because it’s highlighting Columbus as a polluted major city in the U.S.,” Whetstone said. “We don’t have a lot of these other problems that contribute to high particle pollution levels.”

Jennifer Van Vlerah, the Ohio EPA’s Division of Air Pollution Control assistant chief, said what IQAir recorded was also inconsistent with the state agency’s recent data.

Planning commission looking into methodology

IQAir uses PM 2.5 — or fine particulate matter, one of a few metrics used to measure air quality  — to rank countries and cities around the globe. Kevin Crist, an Ohio University professor and director of its Center for Air Quality, said PM 2.5 is essentially made of fine dust particles.

“Those are the particles that are more apt to get through your nose or through your mouth into your lungs, and then if they’re small enough, into your bloodstream,” Crist said. 

In 2022, IQAir recorded Columbus as having 13.1 micrograms per cubic meter — World Health Organization standards were set between 9 and 10. 

But that figure, Whetstone said, combines data from both Ohio EPA regulatory monitors and low-cost sensors. MORPC has about 20 low-cost sensors throughout Franklin County to track the quality of air in different neighborhoods.

“There is value in all of the data, however, it’s a bit challenging and misleading to combine those sources together to create an analysis like this,” Whetstone said.

Foggy or misty days can skew results higher on low-cost sensors, she said. 

Whetstone and others with MORPC reached out to IQAir with questions about methodology, but had yet to schedule a time to sit down as of Tuesday.

How could manufacturing, general growth affect air quality? 

Steubenville — roughly 150 miles away from Columbus and formerly the home of coal mines and steel mills — was once one of a number of cities cited in a landmark fine particulate matter study by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health that looked at how air quality could harm residents’ health. 

As some extractive industries waned, cities that housed them — like Steubenville — saw their air quality generally get better. But electric generation has never really been central to the economy in Columbus.

Right now, emissions coming from cars, trucks, and other vehicles are the biggest driver of diminished air quality in the city and its surrounding communities, Whetstone said. She said steering them toward more biker- and walker-friendly infrastructure and electrifying public transit fleets will be vital.

“The region is growing significantly,” Whetstone said. “We need to be able to accommodate this growth in a way that balances the economic, social, and environmental considerations. As we grow bigger, we should be growing better.”

But as manufacturers flock to the area, with Intel and Honda flanking the city, industry emissions can create risk for higher particulate pollution levels — which Crist said the Ohio EPA will discuss as the plants move along.

“If those areas are in nonattainment, then they will have to look at that and they will scrub their emissions the best they can,” Crist said.