Sound public health policy requires accurate information

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A recent Guest Opinion piece in Rochester Beacon, “The toll of emissions from landscape equipment” by Jill Bellenger, contained statements regarding the Monroe County Department of Public Health that were uninformed and misleading. Equipment that burns gas or other fossil fuels, including tools used by the lawn and garden industry, certainly contribute to reduced air quality. However, for at least the past decade or more, air quality in Monroe County has posed very little threat to public health.

Julie Philipp

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the median Air Quality Index in Monroe County was 38 in 2021, and 37 in both 2022 and 2023. Those numbers fall well into the “Good” category and pose “little or no risk” to public health. In fact, the EPA indicates “it’s a great day to be active outside” at those levels.

Compare that to Arizona’s Maricopa County, which had a median AQI of 122 in 2021, which falls into the “Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups” category. The AQI was 74 in 2022 and 63 in 2023, both of which fall into the “Moderate” level of concern. While that county is seeing recent improvement, its AQI is significantly worse than Monroe County’s AQI, and has been for some time. For Bellenger to infer that Monroe County should have been taking the same actions as Maricopa County to protect public health ignores this basic fact.

That said, Monroe County experienced several unhealthy AQI events in 2023 due to wildfire smoke, which created a significant public health risk. As stated by the author, the Department of Public Health can and did choose to issue a number of recommendations. The department’s recommendations focused on health impacts, especially for those with chronic health conditions, including children with asthma. In addition, the department issued recommendations for employers with outdoor workers who might have been at increased risk for negative health effects.

However, the author is incorrect in saying that the department dictated schools to cancel activities. The department did not have the authority to require schools to follow its recommendations. Nor did it have the authority to limit the activities of lawn and landscape businesses as the author suggested it should. Had the author contacted the department prior to submitting her piece, it could have helped her identify the appropriate agencies.

The Department of Public Health anticipates Monroe County will continue to experience air quality events related to climate change, and its team is expanding efforts to protect the public from related adverse health effects. In order to avoid confusion and misperceptions that could also have adverse effects, it is important that information is presented accurately and in proper context.

Julie Philipp is director of community engagement for the Monroe County Department of Public Health. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected]

2 thoughts on “Sound public health policy requires accurate information

  1. Julie,

    In 2010, Mt. Sinai Children’s Environmental Health Center urged Eastchester, NY town board members to restrict internal combustion power tools and leaf blowers.

    In 2014, the Long Island Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that Huntington, NY restrict the hours and months in which gas leaf blowers could be allowed for use based on their numerous public health risks.

    In 2016, the Medical Society of NY included in its list of recommendations to the House of Delegates a resolution brought by the Suffolk County Medical Society to ban the use of gasoline powered leaf blowers.

    There have been numerous legislation proposed on the state level in NY to limit or ban their use.

    Has the Monroe County Health Dept ever or does it plan to take such a stance on something that is so clearly a public health risk based on many years of research and data from the public health community? There are many County residents that wish more was being done to limit their use and look to our health experts for leadership, not just toothless ‘recommendations.’

  2. Thank you for the opportunity to address some very important points related to public health in Monroe County. The goal of my article was to bring light to an important issue that impacts all of us, and to share a very well-researched study by U.S. PIRG, Environment America and others, which included findings and recommendations from other parts of the country. Finding which we can certainly take note of and consider applying them in our area.

    It is my understanding that the MCHD is responsible for making recommendations for what after-school activities should occur at County schools, they really are not the enforcers and do not have any authority over school activities. Similarly, I was told in my conversations with Mirza Begovic in June at MCHD (specifically June 7th when Rochester’s AQI was creeping up to 300) and subsequent emails with Mirza in July, copied with Public Health Engineer Brett Gobe as well as Scott Hallock, that MCHD cannot make recommendations to limit outdoor activities that would exacerbate the already poor air quality.

    I encouraged them to reconsider and was told the only way they could make those kinds of recommendations is if there was a law they could cite. Brett encouraged me to reach out to County government to change the law. When I reached back on July 16, 2023 to explain all the efforts, as a constituent of the County, that I have tried to take through advocacy over many years to bring this issue to a level where it is considered a serious public health risk, I received no response.

    Maybe instead of suggesting that the author of the article needs to contact the MCHD, instead consider that they in fact may have, and in this case did several times, and that the MCHD did not take the issue up and in the end chose not to respond. 

    Your comments state that MCHD “issued recommendations for employers with outdoor workers who might have been at increased risk for negative health effects.” While that is helpful advice, it does not go so far as to recommend limiting taking part in outdoor activities that would worsen the already poor air quality. The recommendations do not expressly say to avoid landscaping activities like mowing and leaf blowing, which create a disproportionate level of emissions compared to passenger vehicles, as they do in other counties. I was told by MCHD in June 2023 that no such recommendation could be made.

    Even our own NY DEC recognizes the public health risks of these activities but again, does not go as far as limit their activities on poor air quality days (Keep Air Clean – NYDEC).

    Let’s please see the bigger picture that there are more players than only the MCHD and we should all be working together, not picking battles with each other. Happy to discuss further.

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