Austinites urged to protect air quality in ozone-prone summer months


Ground-level ozone is expected to increase in the summer months, causing health problems for some.

Residents are asked to save electricity and bike, walk or carpool to improve air quality on Ozone Action Days.

The warm season is upon us, bringing with it the threat of increased ground-level ozone. Clean air advocates Thursday urged Austin area residents to pay attention to air quality levels and do their part to reduce pollution.

“Just as the weather gets nice and we all want to get outside, we are entering ozone season, when air quality becomes a concern for our vulnerable residents,” Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt said Thursday.

Eckhardt, who leads the Central Texas Clean Air Coalition, said institutional efforts aren’t enough. “Each of us can do our part through getting educated, educating others and making healthy choices about how we get around from place to place.”

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The ozone layer in the upper atmosphere protects us from the sun’s radiation. But on the ground, it can be a respiratory irritant. Ground-level ozone is formed when particles from emissions, such as motor vehicle exhaust and gasoline vapors, combine with sunlight. Many people know it as smog.

It becomes a particular problem in the Austin area during the summer months. When winds are calm and the sky is clear, ozone pollutants are more likely to accumulate, which can be especially troublesome for people with respiratory conditions such as asthma and allergies, who often experience worsening symptoms. Others who are at risk include young and old people and those who spend a lot of time outside.

The city of Austin issues alerts when ozone levels are high — so-called Ozone Action Days. Residents are encouraged to conserve electricity, carpool, walk or use public transportation instead of cars and to avoid using things like gas-powered lawnmowers to improve air quality.

“Be aware if you are a runner, you might want to skip running that day,” Environmental Defense Fund vice president Jim Marston said. “Kids ought to probably where possible do indoor activities and exercise. … The elderly probably ought to stay indoors period.”

Air quality levels reached at least 70 parts per billion, which is considered harmful to public health by the Environmental Protection Agency, on seven days in 2017. The city observed only three Ozone Action Days, as forecasters aren’t always able to adequately gauge air quality ahead of time, said Cari Buetow, who works in the city’s air quality program.

Saturday was the first time in 2018 that ozone reached harmful levels in Austin.

To help alleviate problems, cities and counties in Central Texas have strengthened vehicle inspection requirements and installed more air quality monitors, Eckhardt said. Capital Metro, the city’s transportation authority, also began buying the cleanest diesel engine buses in 2015 and plans to roll out an all-electric fleet soon.

This summer, they will offer free rides to Austin primary and secondary students and free rides to all passengers June 3 through June 9.

“Air quality is a matter of life and death,” Austin Council Member Ann Kitchen said. “Each one of us can do something about it.”

Residents can check air quality forecasts daily on the city’s website and sign up to receive emailed forecasts and Ozone Action Day alerts from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

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