October 31 marked the official end of ozone season in Texas. Ozone pollution, commonly known as smog, forms when compounds found in fossil fuel emissions react with sunlight. Ozone is a serious health concern for Texans, as excess exposure to ozone has been linked to a number of detrimental health effects, including asthma, heart attacks and even cancer.
Unfortunately, for many Texas cities, the combination of sunny days and crowded highways led to consistent violations of the standard over the course of this ozone season, and on a few days outside the season.
This year’s air quality measurements from the Houston region demonstrate that ozone pollution surpassed EPA’s health-based standard during 24 separate 8-hour intervals in 2013. Last year, the same air monitoring stations recorded 37 ozone violation days. Houston saw the highest ozone levels across the state, but Dallas and San Antonio followed closely behind. The worst days for both Houston and Dallas came when ozone peaked at 100 ppb—a level considered unsafe for healthy children and adults to have prolonged outdoor activities.
While the largest Texas cities have made some progress toward cleaner air, ozone concentrations in many parts of the state have plateaued over the last five years at levels considered dangerous for the most vulnerable populations. And let’s not forget, even temporary exposure to excess ozone pollution exacerbates existing health problems, increasing hospital admissions and the occurrence of heart attacks. To mitigate this critical health hazard, the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS), established by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), has helped improve air quality over the past decade throughout the Lone Star State by setting limits for pollutants considered harmful to public health. But there is still more we can do to safeguard Texans’ health.
First and foremost, we need a modern ozone standard based on the latest science. In 2008, the EPA established the ozone standard at 75 ppb, despite the nation’s leading medical societies and EPA’s own Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee warning that the standard was not sufficient. To put it in perspective—research has shown that ozone exposure at levels as low as 60 ppb can increase inflammation of the lungs. EPA must adjust the standard to reflect the best available science. Until then, citizens continue to be at increased risk from the hazards of ozone pollution.
The second solution comes in the form of good policy. Luckily, some policies have already been proposed to help Texas achieve healthier air quality and meet national standards.
The proposed “Tier 3” vehicle emission and fuel standards, for instance, will reduce tailpipe pollution, improve air quality and save Texans millions in health costs—even after accounting for the cost of implementation. Given automobile emissions are the single greatest source of ozone pollution in urban areas, these standards mark a significant step forward in curbing ozone-creating pollutants.
Additionally, the proposed Cross State Air Pollution Rule, which establishes standards for sources of air pollution that travel into neighboring states, will help reduce ozone pollution from another very large source of harmful emissions—fossil fuel power plants.
The strategies and technologies needed to get Texas’ air pollution under control do exist – they just need to be implemented. Texas state leaders need to push for sound policies that reflect the practices and standards embraced by the medical community and scientific experts around the country. With new, stronger policies in place, Texas leaders can safeguard cleaner air and ensure better health for all Texans.