Last week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Region VI, representing Texas and surrounding states, announced that Houston was on track to meet the 1997 federal health standard for ozone within the next five years. Of course, I am and have been supportive of the multitude of efforts deployed and enforced to reduce ozone levels in Houston over the years. At the same time, I am concerned that the recent announcement may create a public perception of Houston as out of the weeds.
The truth is that the 1997 standard has been found to be woefully inadequate to protect human health from the harms of ozone, which include, but are not limited to, asthma, bronchitis and cancer. The 1997 standard of 84 parts per billion (ppb) was revised in 2008 to a standard of 75ppb. Even this standard of 75ppb, however, has been criticized for failing to provide adequate public health protection. In addition, a closer look at ozone Design Values (a wonky term for the three-year average of the four highest days of eight-hour ozone concentration in each year) in Houston over the last five years suggests that the region may have reached a plateau in terms of reducing ozone.
Here’s a breakdown of the Design Values for the Houston Metropolitan Region:
Despite new standards for cleaner cars and emissions protections for power plants, new challenges face the region every year. For example, Houston’s population has increased 3 percent in the last two years, and the Port of Houston, as well as many industrial facilities along the Ship Channel, has undergone extensive expansion projects – all of which contribute to the creation of ozone.
We expect that EPA’s announcement was meant to serve as a pat on the back for the region’s efforts to reduce ozone-forming pollution and certainly, some progress is better than none. However, the real victory will be when the region actually attains a standard that reflects adequate protection from the health hazards of ozone.