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The State of the State for Air Quality

By Adrian Shelley

There’s been a lot of talk about air pollution lately and for good reason. Fossil fuel air pollution is responsible for one in five deaths globally, including up to 17,000 people yearly in Texas. This blog will look at recent air pollution news and what it means for Texas.

Particulate Matter: New York City

Photo by CNN’s Jim Griffin

Seemingly overnight, New York City became one of the most polluted cities in the world. Striking images of an orange sky over the Big Apple have made the rounds on the news and social media. New York’s pollution was caused by wildfires in Canada, specifically the soot or “particulate matter” they produce.

Particulate matter is probably the most dangerous air pollutant worldwide and in Texas. Most of the health impacts from air pollution–including those 17,000 deaths yearly–are from particulate matter. It causes everything from heart attacks to stroke, diabetes, asthma attacks, impairment of brain development, and death.

Texans suffer from particulate matter (or “PM”) pollution from several sources, including burning fossil fuels, concrete batch plants, metal recyclers, and natural sources. We get PM from wildfires like New York, although ours travels north from Mexico. Believe it or not, we also get particulate matter from as far away as the Sahara Desert in Africa.

Currently, Texas meets the federal Clean Air Act standards for particulate matter. That may change soon. The EPA is considering lowering its annual standard for fine particulate matter, or “PM 2.5,” because it is 2.5 microns in diameter. This particulate matter is small enough to travel from the lungs into the bloodstream, where it can cause any of the health impacts listed above. Currently, the annual standard for PM2.5 is 12 micrograms of fine PM per cubic meter of air (written as 12 µg/m3). The EPA is considering lowering the standard to 10 or even 9 µg/m3, which would result in several cities in Texas not meeting the fine PM standard, called “nonattainment.” We know this because cities in Texas barely meet the 12 µg/m3 standard. In fact, they could only meet that standard in Houston by excluding some of those natural events mentioned above–wildfires and Saharan dust events from the data.

So while Texas’ air is not as polluted as New York City’s, Texans should pay attention to particulate matter pollution. It has a grave impact on public health here. If the EPA lowers the standard as it should, PM polluters will need to clean up their act. This will benefit many Texans, especially those most vulnerable to air pollution: children, older individuals, and people with respiratory illnesses.

Ozone Pollution and “Ozone Action Days”

If you’ve ever received an “air quality alert” in Texas, chances are it was about high ozone pollution. The federal Clean Air Act has had a standard for air pollution since 1979, and some Texas cities have never met a Clean Air Act standard for ozone. In other words, Texas has been in “nonattainment” of the ozone standard as long as there’s been an ozone standard.

Ozone is dangerous – it’s associated with asthma attacks and heart attacks. Just one day of ozone pollution elevated twenty parts per billion above normal – from 50 ppb to 70 ppb – increases the risk of asthma attacks leading to hospitalization in Houston by 10 percent. If that increase goes from 70 ppb to 90 ppb, that increased risk is 21 percent. After just three days at 90 ppb, Houstonians face an amazing 45 percent increased risk of asthma attacks leading to hospitalization.

If you are in poor cardiac health, you should be worried about ozone pollution. Just three hours of exposure to an additional 20 ppb of ozone–especially if that increase is from 75 ppb to 95 ppb or more – leads to a 4 percent increase in heart attacks leading to hospitalization in Houston.

Because ozone is so dangerous to certain sensitive individuals (those with heart or lung problems), forecasters issue “Ozone Action Days” that predict when ozone levels may be elevated. These predictions work because ozone pollution is dependent on the weather.

Ozone forms in the atmosphere when sunlight and pollutants combine. Hot, dry, still weather is perfect for ozone pollution. We’ve had a lot of that weather in Houston lately. (And if you think climate change is likely to make such days more common, you’re right. Ozone is known to be exacerbated by the weather conditions of a warming planet.)

In Houston, every day from June 1-9 was an ozone action day, meaning that ozone was forecast to be unhealthy for sensitive individuals. In May, there were thirteen such forecasts. Actual ozone pollution values have been high on several days this year. May 18 was the worst so far, with ozone pollution in Houston reaching levels that are not safe for anyone, even a healthy adult, to breathe.

What’s next for Texas?

Despite recent news and events, air pollution in Texas is getting better. But better isn’t good, and we shouldn’t look at success in reducing air pollution as an excuse to do less. The opposite is true: the more we learn about air pollution, the more we understand how dangerous it is. Texas and the federal government must do everything they can to improve air quality until no one’s health is harmed by air pollution.

Earlier in this piece, we wrote that most of the health effects in Texas come from particulate matter. But most of the attention from regulators is on ozone–hence all those Ozone Action Days.

Why is that? The answer may sound cynical, but it is true: the concern of state lawmakers and regulators is not public health; it is compliance with the law. We sometimes say that Texas’ goal with environmental regulations is to keep the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency out of Texas. That’s basically the truth. Right now, the ozone pollution standards are the strictest, and its ozone pollution for which certain areas of Texas are in “nonattainment.” Ozone pollution–not particulate matter – might cause the federal government to intervene in Texas. Our regulators don’t want that. They want Texas to stay “open for business” with a lax regulatory climate that allows corporations to do what they want in the state. As long as our state’s priority is to keep regulations light and business booming, we aren’t likely to see air pollution reduction efforts that truly focus on public health.

Many bills proposed at the Legislature this year would have tackled the public health crisis created by air pollution in Texas. Virtually all of the proposals went nowhere. Until Texas gets serious about cleaning its air, Texans will have to deal with particulate matter, ozone, and other dangerous air pollutants.

Adrian Shelley is the Texas director of Public Citizen