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Colorado’s efforts are not enough to solve its ozone problem


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A year after health officials issued a record number of warnings of high ozone levels on Colorado’s Front Range, federal and state officials are trying to curb the gas that can make outdoor activities a health risk.

But new Colorado laws aimed at improving air quality along that urban corridor east of the Rocky Mountains aren’t expected to do much to directly reduce ozone, according to experts charged with lowering levels. “These aren’t the magic bullets that will bring us into line, but they’ll be helpful in reducing emissions,” said Michael Silverstein, executive director of the Regional Air Quality Council, the Front’s leading air quality planning organization for nine counties. Range.

At its most recent legislative session, Colorado legislators passed three bills aimed at improving air quality: one replaces highly polluting diesel buses with electric buses, another provides funding to give residents free access to public transportation for a month during the high ozone season, and the third creates a system to warn the public about toxic emissions released from industrial sources.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s proposal to reclassify nine Front Range counties, including Denver, from “serious” violators of federal ozone standards to “serious” violators, would drive a bigger change, Silverstein said. (The EPA’s “unreachable” ratings start with “severe” and then progress to “severe” and “extreme”.)

But other health experts say neither federal nor state actions will be enough to truly protect public health.

“At some point, you just put on band-aids, and this is what it feels like,” said James Crooks, an air pollution researcher at National Jewish Health, a Denver hospital that specializes in respiratory disease. “It’s better to have the patches than not to, but it won’t solve the problem.”

Ozone is created when chemicals are released into the atmosphere through vehicle exhaust, oil and gas development, and forest fires baked by the sun. Ozone pollution that exceeds federal limits is a persistent problem in the Mountain West valleys, especially in Phoenix; Albuquerque, New Mexico; Salt Lake City; and Denver.

The Front Range has one of the worst ozone problems in the country. Last year, health officials in counties east of the Rocky Mountains issued “ozone action day warnings,” the peak season for ozone, on 65 days from May 31 to August 31. That is the highest number since registration began in 2011.

The EPA determined that over the three-year period from 2018 to 2020, the average eight-hour ozone levels in the Front Range were 81 parts per billion. The federal limit set in 2008 was 75 ppb, but the current one, set in 2015, is 70 ppb. Under the proposal to change a nine-provincial area of ​​the Front Range from a “serious” to a “serious” offender, the region should meet that standard by 2026.

A final decision on the proposal is expected from the EPA this fall.

“Ground-level ozone remains one of the most challenging public health problems we face, affecting large numbers of Coloradans and their families,” said KC Becker, the EPA’s regional administrator, in an April press release announcing the proposed change. .

Crooks said 70 ppb is a difficult target to achieve and not low enough to protect public health. Indeed, no ozone level is safe, he said. “Maybe we can muddle through and make it to 75,” Crooks said. “But 70 will be very difficult to do without decarbonisation,” meaning gas and diesel vehicles will be replaced by electric vehicles.

One challenge in reducing ozone is trying to control emissions of ozone precursors from numerous sources. Thousands of oil and gas wells are located along the Front Range, some in suburbs, and their emissions, along with vehicle emissions, are the main sources of ozone.

Complicating matters further is that half to two-thirds of the ozone plaguing the Front Range comes from outside the state, some as far away as Asia. Background levels of ozone – either natural or man-made ozone that comes from outside the region – can be as high as 60 ppb.

Another problem is the wildfire smoke that blankets the state every summer. And rising temperatures, due to climate change, are causing more ozone to be produced.

Ground-level ozone is the same chemical as the ozone found high in the atmosphere, but above that it forms a crucial shield that protects the Earth from harmful ultraviolet rays.

On the ground, the odorless gas can cause shortness of breath and stinging in the eyes and trigger asthma attacks. It predisposes people to pneumonia and coronary damage. Globally, more than 1 million premature deaths were caused by high ozone levels in 2010, a study finds. Ozone and other pollutants may also increase the risk of hospitalization and death for people infected with COVID-19, according to a recent study.

Air pollution affects children, older adults and those who work the hardest outdoors, and the impact is disproportionately large on deprived areas, whose residents often lack the resources to move to cleaner neighborhoods.

High levels of ozone also cause serious damage and death to vegetation.

Changing the status of the Front Range ozone depleter from “severe” to “severe” could have some impact, some experts said. As a result, refineries would have to produce a special gasoline blend for cars in the nine provinces of the Front Range that would be less volatile and release fewer precursors to the atmosphere. That could increase the gas price by 5% to 10%.

“We’re moving from the highest-emission gasoline to the lowest-emission gasoline” in the country, Silverstein said. “It won’t vaporize if it’s spilled on the ground and burn with fewer emissions. We’ll see the benefits of ozone emissions once it’s at the station.” That may not be until next year or 2024.

Another consequence is that hundreds of companies not covered by the current rules will come under scrutiny by regulators and be forced to account for their emissions.

The Center for Biological Diversity and other environmental organizations have sued the EPA in an effort to enforce a “severe” ozone list for the Front Range and other parts of the US. The lawsuit was filed before the EPA’s reclassification proposal.

Robert Ukeiley, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, thinks the status change will make a difference.

“When we’re bumped from ‘severe’ to ‘severe,’ it lowers the pollution threshold of what is considered a major resource,” he said. “The state should issue major resource permits, and that will reduce pollution.”

High temperatures in Colorado due to climate change pose a major health risk

©2022 Kaiser Health News.

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Quote: Colorado’s efforts are not enough to solve its ozone problem (July 2022, July 14) retrieved July 15, 2022 from https://phys.org/news/2022-07-colorado-efforts-ozone-problem.html

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