HEALTH NEWS: Western Boom Cities Witness a Spike in Harmful Ozone

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The reduction of ground-level ozone in most of the United States over the past few decades has been a success story. However, it has been difficult to reduce the dangerous odorless and colorless gas in certain parts of the country, particularly in the West’s heavily populated mountain valleys.

A growing body of research suggests that levels currently considered safe are too high and should be significantly lowered.

Cities that have dangerously high levels of ozone include Salt Lake City and Phoenix, New Mexico. The levels of ozone in Colorado’s Front Range are at the eastern edge the Rockies. They are also among the highest in the nation — this summer they were the worst.

The spike in ozone, a smoke-filled wildfire season and the ongoing pandemic created a no-win situation for people living within the Front Range, the most populated area of Colorado, which stretches more than 130 miles from Fort Collins through the Denver area and Colorado Springs. While exercising indoors is dangerous for covid transmission, it’s a good idea to exercise with others. High levels of particulate matter and ozone outdoors can be harmful to your health.

” What should you do? “We don’t really understand,” stated James Crooks , an air pollution researcher at National Jewish Health. The hospital is specializing in respiratory diseases. “Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of research to determine what the trade-off .”


Along the Front Range, a place where you might expect fresh mountain breezes, this past summer the levels of ozone routinely spiked above the federal limit of 70 parts per billion — a level that the Environmental Protection Agency lowered from 75 parts per billion in 2015. Officials issued “action alert” health warnings on 65 days there during the peak season from May 31 to Aug. 31, the highest since record-keeping began in 2011.

The World Health Organization suggests that, based on new research, the limit should be 60 parts per billion to better protect human health. The EPA said at the end of October it was reviewing the 70 ppb limit to see whether change was warranted.

Children and older adults with heart or lung problems, as well as people with other preexisting conditions, are advised to avoid spending extended periods outside. During much of the summer, many people preferred to stay indoors.

” “The last two years have been really, really terrible,” Crooks stated. “Ozone” is “the most dangerous widespread pollutant, after particulate matter. We know that it has an impact on more than your lungs .”

In some areas, high levels of wildfire smoke and ozone caused sporting events to be cancelled. Ozone and other forms of air pollution caused by August’s high levels in Provo, Utah schools, led to the cancellation of soccer and football games. Salt Lake City’s athletic department has its own air quality monitor that tracks particulate and oxygen levels. This allows it to determine when practice or games should be cancelled.

Ozone is chemically very similar to chlorine but less toxic. It can be thought of as a gas that exists in the stratosphere or upper atmosphere where it protects the Earth from ultraviolet rays. When auto exhaust and oil and gas emissions are baked by the sun, ground-level ozone, also known as tropospheric ozone, is formed. Higher altitude cities receive more solar radiation than those at lower elevations, which increases the reaction that turns nitrous oxide into ozone.

The gas is extremely toxic to both plants and animals, including humans. To distinguish the protective layer of stratospheric oxygen from the ground-level ozone, some people use the phrase “Good up high, but bad near”

Ozone can pose serious health risks to humans.

Ozone poses a number of serious threats to human health. It can trigger asthma attacks and shortness of breath. It can also increase the risk of developing other respiratory infections or cause cardiac arrest. Exposure to ozone in pregnancy can lead to lower birth weight .

It’s also been shown to exacerbate covid-19 symptoms and increase mortality from the disease, and to increase the prevalence of Type 2 diabetes in people who spend time outdoors. A study that was published in Colorado last year found a decrease in bacterial diversity within the human microbiome. This could raise the risk for many chronic diseases.

More than a million premature deaths are caused globally each year by ozone. Experts also say the burden of air pollution falls disproportionately on low-income, nonwhite and otherwise disenfranchised people who often lack the resources to move.

A new research method has been used to examine the effects of air pollution on single cells. It was found that long-term health issues may result from prolonged exposure to fine-particle and ozone pollution. A study on predominantly Hispanic children aged 6-8 years in California’s ozone-plagued Central Valley found that air pollution can impair gene expression and lead to higher levels of heart disease. These changes could even be passed to the next generation.

“It seems like even brief exposure to air pollution can alter the regulation and expressions of children’s genes, and possibly alter blood pressure. This could potentially lead to an increased risk of developing diseases later in life,” stated Dr. Mary Prunicki , director for air pollution and health research at Stanford University’s Sean N. Parker Centre for Allergy & Asthma.

Ground level ozone is mainly human-caused. Wildfire smoke, which is a problem in Colorado and the West every year but was especially severe this year, contributes to both fine-particle and ozone pollution. The burden is also increased by ozone coming from Asia.

“We are not nearly as strict as other states — for example, California — and not nearly as strict as Europe for vehicle emissions,” said Frank Flocke, an atmospheric chemist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, who studies air pollution.

The other important factor is volatile organic substances, such as methane, Ethane and benzene that are emitted from the burning and production natural gas and oil and gaz operations, he stated.

” The meteorology is also a problem.” Flocke said. “When you have high-pressure systems that last for a long time, the air becomes really stagnant, and the effects are amplified .”

Climate change is a major factor. “If you are under polluted conditions as the climate warms, you get more ozone,” said Daniel Jacob, a professor of atmospheric chemistry at Harvard University.

While the Front Range’s air quality has improved over the past decade it has gotten worse in the last two years. Officials from the state claim they are working to reduce pollution sources, but critics argue that they don’t take it seriously enough because the Front Range continues its boom, adding more people and polluting the environment.

” I don’t believe there is an easy solution,” stated Flocke. We need to be more aggressive in regulation and shift our habits. We must encourage people to use public transportation .”


Increasing electric vehicle use and renewable energy are key components of the strategy for Denver and other ozone-plagued areas, he said. Crooks stated, “The things we do to combat climate change are those that will clean up our air right away.” “We would get two birds with one stone .”

Research for this article was supported by the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University.

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