AUSTIN (KXAN) - Air quality is not usually a large concern for most people in Austin, but new numbers show that ozone pollution has reached dangerous levels.
"We're no Houston or Dallas. Those cities are ranked as some of the most polluted in the nation," said Luke Metzger, founder and director of Environment Texas. "But we're just right on the line of failing federal health standards for air quality."
A network of sensors in Central Texas monitors ozone pollution levels in the region, and our average level was recently measured at 75 parts per billion – which is exactly the legal limit imposed by the Environmental Protection Agency.
And unlike ozone at higher levels in the atmosphere, which is a good thing as it helps protect us from the sun's damaging rays, ground-level ozone is harmful to our health.
Some of the ozone pollution is blown in from industrial areas like Houston, but Austin contributes its fair share as well.
"Probably the largest category of sources would be what we call ‘on-road mobile', which is cars and trucks," said Bill Gill, air quality director at the Capital Area Council of Governments.
Vehicles contribute about half of the ozone pollution, and small power plants such as the Austin Energy facility at Decker Lake are more minor contributors.
Ozone is not directly emitted by these sources of pollution. Instead, certain chemicals in the pollution that comes from combustion react with sunlight to form ozone.
High levels of this pollutant can be a serious health risk – especially for people with respiratory problems.
"That's especially troublesome for the 18,000 kids in Travis County who suffer from asthma," Metzger said.
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has sponsored almost $45 million in grants to help keep ozone levels in check, providing incentives for individuals and businesses reducing emissions.
Measures currently being taken to reduce ozone pollution include stricter enforcement of up-to-date vehicle inspection stickers, public transportation improvements, and city planning that reduces commute times.
But some environmental groups want the EPA to put in place even tighter restrictions when they update the rules next year, saying that even the current ozone limit is too high.
"Lowering those standards could save about 12,000 lives a year," Metzger said. "It's a matter of life and death."
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