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The air we breathe

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League of Women Voters cites 16% jump in ozone emissions in metro area

By Sandy Barnes

Last week, air quality was in the good range for Jefferson County and the Denver region, according to data on the state website. Driving down the hill from Evergreen and Conifer, motorists saw a bright blue sky on the eastern horizon rather than a band of brown haze.

However, air quality in the region — and its health effects — fluctuates with changing seasons and shifting air currents.

“Weather is the driver of all of this,” says Christopher Dann, spokesman for the Air Pollution Control Division of the state health department.

The American Lung Association gave Jefferson County an F grade for air quality in its 2014 State of the Air report. Dann says that report is misleading because of its emphasis on county-based data.

“The air outside doesn’t recognize lines on a map,” Dann said.

However, Jeffco is one of nine counties in the Denver metro region in a non-compliance area for air quality, Dann said.

In Jeffco and other metro counties, the major source of air pollution is ground-level ozone, which comes from vehicle emissions, industry, oil and gas production, and other sources.

“We’re in compliance except for ground-level ozone,” Dann said. “That is true of any urban area.”

The Jeffco League of Women Voters is studying air pollution and its effects on the population. A report from a league committee states that in 2014 there were 38 days of unhealthy air for people in sensitive groups — a number that indicates a 16 percent increase in ozone levels over the past three years.

“People need to be aware of what’s going on here,” said Mickey Harlow, a league member who worked on the report.

In compiling data for the report, the league committee used information from a 2013 report by the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission, which includes information on the health effects of air pollution such as ozone.

“Ozone can cause breathing difficulties and respiratory infections in the elderly, the young and those with pre-existing ailments such as asthma. Even healthy people who exercise or work outdoors can experience respiratory effects from ozone,” the report states.

Regional haze is another environmental concern on which the League of Women Voters is focusing.

Haze, which can been seen as a brown band on the horizon, is caused by fine particles produced by emissions from power plants, industrial sources, motor vehicles, fires, agricultural activities, and windblown dust and dirt.

Haze also is often referred to as smog.

Monitoring emissions

The state’s Air Pollution Control Division collects data at monitoring stations throughout Colorado. In Jefferson County, air quality is measured at Rocky Flats and Aspen Park, as well as other locations.

The state uses EPA standards in measuring pollutants, which include particulate matter, ground-level ozone, carbon monoxide, sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides and lead. Particulate matter is made up of various components, including acids such as nitrates and sulfates, organic chemicals, metals, and soil or dust particles.

At the state monitoring sites, ozone levels are compared with the EPA standard of 0.075 parts per million. Particulates ranging from 10 to 2.5 microns also are measured at the stations. Small particles less than 10 microns in diameter pose the greatest concern to human health, Dann said.

“The smaller the particle, the more deeply it can be inhaled,” he said.

Improving air quality

The state has the responsibility for drafting and submitting a plan to the EPA on decreasing ground-level ozone, Dann said.

He also said that regulations the Air Quality Control Commission adopted in 2014 to reduce emissions of hydrocarbons from oil and gas production are now being enacted. The burgeoning oil and gas industry, much of which is based in Weld County, contributes to air quality issues in the metro region, Dann said.

Those regulations include strategies to reduce methane emissions from the oil and gas sector that contribute to global climate change, according to the state report.

While discussing possible courses of action for the League of Women Voters at the March 10 meeting, member Margot Zallen suggested talking with Jeffco’s county commissioners about air quality issues in the county.

Jefferson County Public Health does not monitor air quality, except for limited ozone-depleting compounds such as those produced by dry cleaners and auto body shops, said John Moody, Jeffco environmental health specialist.

“We have a contract with the state to monitor minor sources (emitting) less than 100 tons a year,” Moody said.

Contact Sandy Barnes at sandy@evergreenco.com or call 303-350-1042.