Ozone Action Days: What Do They Really Mean

This post was written by guest blogger Deanna Altenhoff, Executive Director of CLEAN AIR Force of Central Texas.

We are all familiar with the term “Ozone Action Day” and typically associate it with a hot summer day.  But what does it really mean?  The CLEAN AIR Force of Central Texas, the only non-partisan, public/private organization in Central Texas exclusively focused on air quality improvement, explains the significance of ozone pollution – and what you can do to make a difference. The CLEAN AIR Force Board of Directors consists of 32 executives from both the public and private sector, including Dr. Elena Craft of the Environmental Defense Fund, united in the common goal of finding workable solutions for improving our region’s air quality. The CLEAN AIR Force is not about waiting for the federal government to tell us what to do to clean up our air; we’re about taking early action now to keep air quality decisions at the local level.

The CLEAN AIR Force oversees a number of voluntary air quality programs that serve the public and help to reduce ozone levels in the Central Texas region. Two examples of those programs are the Clean Air Partners Program and the Clean School Bus Program.  We help implement and coordinate the air quality improvement efforts of local businesses, governments and organizations through our Clean Air Partners Program and we help retrofit and replace older polluting school buses with newer cleaner technologies and implement anti-idling policies through our Clean School Bus Program.  Educating citizens on what they can do to reduce their emissions is also a key part of our mission.

Central Texas is considered near-nonattainment for ground-level ozone under the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS). The ozone standard is currently set at 75 parts per billion (ppb) and the Central Texas Design Value for 2012 was 74 ppb. Despite two new and lower ozone standards in the past 16 years and a doubling of the population in the last 22 years, Central Texas has been able to avoid nonattainment because of positive weather conditions and the many pro-active air quality efforts our region is making, but there are many challenges ahead.

EPA has announced they may lower the existing standard of 75 ppb to 60-70 ppb by the end of 2013. This means we must continue to work together as a region to significantly lower our ozone emissions or risk being designated as nonattainment, which would negatively impact both public health and the health of our economy.

So what’s so bad about ozone health-wise? Ozone is a form of oxygen that is formed through chemical reactions between natural and man-made emissions of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) and oxides of nitrogen (NOx) in the presence of sunlight.  Sources of VOCs and NOx include automobiles, boats, refineries, chemical manufacturing plants, solvents used in dry cleaners and paint shops, and wherever natural gas, gasoline, diesel fuel, kerosene, and oil are combusted.

Ozone Season in Central Texas runs from April 1st to October 31st. Ozone pollution is mainly a daytime problem during summer months because warm temperatures are key to its formation. When temperatures are high, sunshine is strong, and winds are low, ozone can accumulate to unhealthy levels.

The biggest concern with high ozone concentration is the damage it causes to human health, vegetation, and to many common materials we use. High concentrations of ozone can cause shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing, headaches, nausea, eye and throat irritation, and lung damage. People who suffer from lung diseases like bronchitis, pneumonia, emphysema, asthma, and colds have even more trouble breathing when the air is polluted. These effects can be worse in anyone who spends significant periods of time exercising or working outdoors.

Adults breathe more than 10,000 times each day and during exercise or strenuous work, we breathe even more often and draw air more deeply into the lungs. When we exercise heavily, we may increase our intake of air by as much as 10 times our level at rest.  Children are at the greatest risk from exposure to ozone because their lungs are still developing and they are more likely to be active outdoors when ozone levels are high.

When ozone levels are predicted to reach unhealthy levels, an ozone alert is issued. Ozone Action Days are issued to caution citizens to limit their time outdoors as well as to remind them to take actions to help reduce their emissions that contribute to ground-level ozone.  Simple actions everyone can take to reduce air pollution include:

  • Limit driving
  • Combine errands
  • Carpool or ride the bus
  • Avoid idling
  • Postpone refueling your vehicle or mowing the lawn until after 6:00 p.m.
  • Tuning up your vehicle
  • Reduce electricity usage

If you live in Central Texas you can sign up for ozone alerts via email through the CLEAN AIR Force website, on Facebook or on Twitter. Every effort counts and awareness of Ozone Action Day Alerts is key to knowing when to take action.

The CLEAN AIR Force will also be hosting an Ozone Season Kick-Off Event at Round Rock City Hall on Monday, April 8th at 11:00 am. Guest speakers include Round Rock Mayor Alan McGraw, Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell, CLEAN AIR Force Board Chair and Williamson County Commissioner Ron Morrison, and CLEAN AIR Force Vice Chair Tim Jones with Samsung. Free transportation from Austin to Round Rock will be provided in an environmentally friendly Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) bus from one of our Clean Air Partners, R&R Limousine & Bus. Please call 512.225.7776 or send an email to deanna@cleanairforce.org for more details.

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