Communicating Air Quality Information: Experimental Evaluation of Alternative Formats


* Address correspondence to Branden B. Johnson, Bureau of Risk Analysis, Division of Science, Research and Technology, New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, Po Box 409, Trenton, NJ 08625-0409;


A long-running effort in environmental communication is daily publication of a report on local air pollution in many American newspapers based on the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI). A 1998 proposal by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) to change the PSI prompted a survey experiment with 1,100 adults in Philadelphia, evaluating the proposed change's ability to better inform the populace. The effects of exposure to the old and new versions of the PSI, as well as health cautions and information about groups sensitive to air pollution, were compared with evaluation criteria suggested by Weinstein and Sandman (1993). Sample respondents had strong baseline concerns about air pollution. Descriptors of air quality (e.g., “good; ”“unhealthy”) were difficult to discriminate, particularly in the New format. Concern rose as hypothetical air pollution levels rose, but the New format (as well as PSI versions without health cautions or sensitive-group information) evoked a sharp discontinuity in concern between below- and above-standard pollution levels. Both Old and New formats reduced concern relative to no provision of PSI information at all, but the New format reduced concern significantly more than the Old version. No PSI format did particularly well at increasing knowledge of air pollution or decreasing intentions to be active outdoors during high pollution, contrary to the agency's aim. Although U.S. EPA has since adopted the new proposal as a national “Air Quality Index” requirement, the experiment's results illuminate the strengths and limitations of the new PSI as a means of informing citizens and motivating them to protect themselves.