Summer ozone season stirs up the state

Tuesday , June 09, 2015 - 3:23 PM

BENJAMIN ZACK/STANDARD-EXAMINER

FILE - Weber State University students Johnny Nikoloff, left, and Jeff Page seal a small ozone-measuring system into a styrofoam container before flying it over Ogden on Wednesday, March 11, 2015.

This week brought the first mandatory air quality action days for ozone, meaning the summer pollution season has officially begun.

Ozone pollution causes breathing problems among sensitive groups, like children, the elderly and those with respiratory problems. Like wintertime inversion, the pollution forms when car exhaust and volatile organic compounds mix with sunlight in the atmosphere. In the winter, that atmospheric cocktail forms particles, but in the summer it cooks up ground-level ozone.

“It’s a different pollutant, and with ozone, it’s a little trickier because it’s harder to predict,” said Donna Spangler, spokeswoman for the Utah Department of Environmental Quality.

Ozone tends to build up during the heat of the day, especially when there’s stagnant air. Levels begin to decline in the evening as temperatures cool. Storms can help clear out the pollution, but if the air stays stagnant, ozone can linger. It’s hard for air quality scientists to know what those variable conditions will mean ahead of time.

“That’s why they’ll predict action days in the evening around 7,” Spangler said, “if there are still high levels then, and they know from the weather pattern that there won’t be substantial wind or rain that will break.”

Spangler said another tricky element about ozone pollution is that it’s less visible than the particulate pollution seen during the winter. But just because Utahns can’t see dirty air doesn’t mean it’s healthy to go outside.

“Sometimes it looks a little hazy, but you can’t really know,” she said. “And sometimes it even looks worse than it really is.”

That’s why Utah DEQ officials recommend checking the air forecast at air.utah.gov/forecast.php or by calling the Air Pollution Hotline at (801) 536-0072 for Davis County and (800) 228-5434 for Weber County.

“We also try and encourage people to limit activity during the hottest part of the day, because that’s when exposure will be at the (highest),” Spangler said. “So midday between 12 and 3, you many not want to be exercising outside.”

FILE - Two crew members work on a drilling rig about 30 miles south of Vernal. Environmentalists and clean-air advocates are decrying a federal appeals court ruling last week that upheld the Environmental Protection Agency’s decision not to red flag an eastern Utah region flush with oil and gas development. The groups that mounted the legal challenge to the EPA’s ruling after high levels of ground-level ozone were detected in the Uinta Basin haven’t decided if they will appeal the ruling.

As ozone season presses on, Utah DEQ will be coordinating with universities along the Wasatch Front, including Weber State, to better understand the state’s ozone problem, especially as another air issue looms on the horizon. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is considering tightening standards on ozone levels throughout the nation.

“We don’t know what those standards are going to be, but we do know the current standard … in parts of our state, is just barely being met,” Spangler said. “We know (the change) is going to happen, we just don’t know when.”

Utahns can help cut their contribution to the ozone problem by limiting car trips.

“If you have to drive to work, then maybe take your lunch or walk to lunch,” Spangler said. “Try not to do multiple trips during the day.”

They can also scale back on activities that release volatile organic compounds in the afternoon, like mowing lawns and pumping gas.

“Don’t idle the car, try to conserve energy in your home, those are all things that help,” Spangler said. “Remember, it’s just going to continue to build and get worse if there’s no change in the weather pattern.”