High ozone levels have state officials, Coloradans holding collective breath
DENVER – High ozone readings have Coloradans holding their breath as sizzling temperatures bake engine exhaust and other emissions into a pollutant hard on people with respiratory problems and the Denver area teeters on the brink of exceeding federal standards.Air-monitoring stations along the Front Range registered ground-level ozone pollution above the federal standard of 80 parts per billion over the weekend. One in the northwest metro area hit 90 parts per billion Saturday.And it’s just the start of the peak ozone season. Ground-level ozone is created when the sun bakes pollutants such as engine exhaust, wildfire smoke and vapors from everything from paint cans to oil and gas wells.Temperatures hovered around 100 in Denver on Monday and highs were expected to be in the mid-90s on Tuesday.”July tends to be our highest ozone month,” Mike Silverstein, manager of planning and policy for the state air pollution control division, said Monday.That’s a problem because the federal government says the ozone levels are too high in nine counties in eastern Colorado, including the Denver area. The Environmental Protection Agency has put off declaring the region as a “non-attainment area,” or out of compliance, in exchange for the state’s plan to reduce ozone by the end of this year.So far, the levels haven’t been as high as they were for the same period last year, Silverstein said. One factor might be this year’s stronger winds, which have helped disperse pollution, he said.”I would like to think the additional control measures have helped, but we can’t prove that,” Silverstein said.In December, state regulators approved the first-ever statewide emissions controls on the booming oil and gas industry and strengthened controls on oil and gas wells in eastern Colorado.The state might have to crack down more, though, if the EPA tightens the standard as recommended. The agency is considering a new standard between 70 parts per billion and 75 parts per billion.A decision is expected in March.The 90-parts-per-billion reading on the north side of the former Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant doesn’t mean the state is out of compliance. The determination will be based on levels averaged over three years.But three more readings exceeding recorded averages at that station will amount to a violation, possibly prolonging the state’s efforts to get a clean bill of health from the EPA.State health officials are also concerned about the health problems that occur below the federal standard. Ozone alerts are issued when conditions are likely to result in readings of at least 75 parts per billion.Hundreds of doctors and public health experts have recommended tightening the standard to 60 parts per billion for health reasons. High ozone levels are particularly rough on the elderly, children and people with respiratory problems.Doctors at Denver’s National Jewish Medical and Research Center, a national leader in treating respiratory illnesses, reported more complaints last week from patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases, including bronchitis and emphysema.”Patients were suffering quite a bit last week with shortness of breath and were using more medication,” National Jewish spokesman William Allstetter said.The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment provides a link on its Web site to the EPA EnviroFlash, a service that sends asthma sufferers daily air-quality conditions or high-pollution alerts.Silverstein of the air quality control division said the public can help reduce ozone pollution by reducing driving and waiting to fuel vehicles, mow lawns and use high-solvent paints later in the day when it’s cooler.Jeremy Nichols, director of Denver-based Rocky Mountain Clean Air Action, said while Colorado has made progress reducing air pollution, the weekend’s high reading shows “we still have a ways to go.” He said emissions need to be cut across the board – from vehicles, oil and gas wells, coal-fired power plants.”If we’re really going to bring ozone down, we need to start thinking of innovative, creative solutions,” Nichols said.
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