Part II: Studies Show Health Risks Associated with More Ozone Pollution

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High ozone days, particularly in sequence, increase the risk of an asthma attack requiring EMS intervention.

In Part I of our series on ozone, we described how 2015 was a bad year for Houston ozone. Why does this matter? In Part II, we’re reviewing recent research from leading Houston scientists that explains why more ozone pollution is harmful to our health.

Scientists have known for a long time that ground-level ozone, or smog, is harmful to human health. Smog is associated with adverse health effects like asthma, bronchitis, emphysema, and lung disease. Children, the elderly, and individuals that spend lots of active time outdoors are even more susceptible to high ozone levels and thus considered sensitive populations.

Fortunately, recent research on exposure to lower levels of ozone prompted the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency this year to strengthen the national health-based standard to 70 parts per billion (ppb). The new standard means cleaner air and healthier lungs in Houston, where studies from area scientists have demonstrated local, negative health implications of high ozone levels.

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In 2013, a group of Rice University experts compared Emergency Medical Services (EMS) information with air pollution data and found that a 20ppb increase in daily ozone levels resulted in a greater relative risk for an out-of-hospital cardiac arrest. This finding is particularly relevant given this year’s ozone trend. Looking back to the first part in our series, we know that there were four monitors with at least four days of ozone readings greater than 20ppb over the health standard.

In 2014, the same team of researchers examined the relationship between ozone pollution and ambulance-treated asthma attacks in Houston. They arrived at a similar conclusion associating poor air quality with health risks: High ozone days, particularly in sequence, increase the risk of an asthma attack requiring EMS intervention. This risk is particularly pronounced for males, African-Americans, and persons aged 46-66. Importantly, the study reviewed exposure to multiple pollutants in addition to ozone, which is more representative of what many Houstonians face every day.

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Comprehensive health studies, nationally and locally, point to the risks from high levels of ozone. Houstonians have long faced unhealthy ozone levels, so recently improved air quality has been welcomed. However, many scientists and health experts are concerned that 2015’s spike in ozone levels may signal deteriorating air quality for Houston. Instead of serving as obstructionists, state officials should heed this research and support efforts that will bring cleaner air to – and protect the health of – the state.

In Part III, we’ll deconstruct some of the arguments put forward by the state of Texas and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) in arguing against a stronger health-based standard.

In Part IV of our series, we’ll review some solutions to Houston’s ozone problem and identify measures to protect the health of Houston area residents.


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