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What the Devil won't tell you

Ozone levels in Pima County air nothing to cough at

Don't panic but be aware current research finds pollutant even worse than once thought

Turns out, ozone is bad for you.

I bring this up for two reasons. First, Tucson just blew over the legal limit on air quality for this smoggy contaminant, which is not necessarily the end of the world. 

Second, health studies are showing that ozone and other forms of air pollution aren’t just about the air looking ugly. It’s actually “a thing," meaning it's more dangerous than scientists previously thought. Ozone doesn't just make it harder to see the Rincons, it'll harm your lungs — and, as we're learning, possibly even your heart.

“People don’t think about the air until they see it,” said Beth Gorman, the Pima County Department of Environmental Quality’s spokeswoman. “That’s the time when we get phone calls and people say ‘why aren’t you doing anything?’”

So goes our relationship with government. We want it to do less. We want it smaller. We think it’s the problem. Then something goes wrong and “Oh my God, where was the government? What is the government going to do about this? Of course we can’t trust business to do the right thing all the time!”

It gets worse when government is successful. The air is dirty. Government passes laws that clean up the air. Twenty years later, the air is clean so why do we need the government to do anything when we have clean air?

The government tends to amp up the rules only after the avoidable catastrophe. If clean air standards ever get truly severe, we'll know why. We'll be telling our kids "I told you not to play outside when the air is tanned." So being aware of the issue now and taking action sooner will mean we both get to avoid the jackboot of government and inhale freely without exhaling convulsively.

The EPA regulates ozone under powers granted to it by the Title VI of the Clean Air Act. 

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The definition of a healthy exposure to ozone – both in duration and level – keeps getting tighter because researchers keep finding the pollutant nastier than previously demonstrated. In 1997, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency set the legal limit for ozone at .08 parts per million, then the feds dropped it to .075 ppm in 2008 and again to .07 ppm in 2015. EPA staff wanted it cut to .065 ppm but business groups like the hyperventilating Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry blew a head gasket). The rule was set at .07 and somehow things are wondrous under The Donald and The Douglas but OK, whatever.

Most days, Tucson's ozone levels are fine. Last Tuesday, the amount in the air would have to be twice as high to affect most vulnerable people. Our pollutant levels have followed a downward trend since the 1990s, with a few spikes along the way. We are kind of experiencing a spike right now.

Should we end up in "non-attainment" status according to the EPA, it could have punishing effects on industry. To hear the Chamber tell it, we'll be reduced to hunter-gatherers bartering lizard stew for sharp sticks. It actually means the state and local governments need to come up with a plan to reduce emissions by restricting and regulating activities that create it. 

However, there's an awful lot of process between here and there. The feds don't just get a couple bad readings and begin to establish non-attainment areas.

Even so, higher ozone levels mean problems for kids and seniors. Some Tucsonans are immediately affected by the pollution and must adjust their days for it. Gorman has a regular caller who has to change her daily activities even when ozone levels are technically considered safe. 

"There are lot of people in our community who are already compromised," Gorman said. 

Pima County’s air quality team is smartly issuing air quality advisories but they aren’t needlessly sounding alarms. The alarming part is how new research is showing the health risks from ozone hit much more quickly than scientists previously thought.

The point Gorman may or may not have been making with her use of vernacular is: We may only get worried when we see the problem but our air isn't something we want to see problems with.

Literally, we don’t want to see it.

I saw the air once. It horrified me. I was on I-10 driving into Los Angeles in the late 1990s on a bad air day. I wanted to throw my Honda into “park,” and get out to see if I was seeing what I thought I was seeing. I could get away with that because I was on I-10 outside Glendale, Calif., at 3 p.m. on a Friday and was doing maybe one mile per hour. The air was kind of like what we see here during a dust storm. I thought to myself the same thing over and over: “How do 10 million people live here?”

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Yeah, EPA regulations can suck

Just so you, dear reader, know that I'm not some in-the-tank regulator, I have a sordid history with the EPA rule-making and look at regs with a smog-colored glasses.

I had to cover the Great Radon Scare here back during the water debates of the late 1990s. Tucson voters had rejected Central Arizona Project water after the initial delivery proved to be a disaster. The heavily treated water destroyed pipes and totally messed up the stainless steel silverware I was bussing the day the spigot began spouting rerouted Colorado River water (it was the chlorine rusting it).

People talk about the "mainstream media" conspiracy and the only time I ever experienced anything close to it had to do with whether the city took CAP water. If Tucson didn’t have an assured water supply, it could effect the economy in existential ways. The powers that be at the Tucson Citizen were damned sure Tucson had to start taking the most vital compound to human existence, whether they liked it or not.

With another election looming, the EPA announced it was about to propose lowering the legal threshold for radon. The new legal limit would have required every drop of water in Tucson to be aerated before delivery, with a 10-figure price tag. Mayor George Miller took the proposed rule change and ran with it, claiming Tucsonans were now under threat from radon and he had a duty to protect the public health by declaring an emergency and flooding the pipes with radon-free CAP water.

It was pure bullshit. Miller worried voters would again reject imported water and used a proposed (and never adopted) radon rule to impose the water upon us.

Radon is not a big threat coming out of the faucet because that water is aerated as it comes out of your tap. It is a threat in parts of the country where sump pumps keep basements free of ground water. The pump is in a “bowl” of exposed water and radon can percolate out and fill the basement. Tucson may have its issues, but high ground -ater levels ain’t one of them.

The EPA standard in and of itself wasn’t to blame for this scare. Yet even proposing those kinds of costs uniformly on communities that would have trouble affording them without compelling health reasons played to the notion that regulation can run amok.

The thing about O3

Ozone is O3, three oxygen molecules coming together when sunlight smashes into volatile organic compounds like nitrous oxide pumped out of smokestacks and tailpipes. When it's in the upper atmosphere, ozone shields us from ultraviolet rays. At ground level, it gives us "photochemical smog, which attacks the lungs.

Long-term ozone exposure to pulmonary health is familiar bad news. It is especially rough on kids, whose lungs are just forming, and the elderly with lung problems

Studies during the late '00s and early '10s showed increased health risks from short-term exposure to ozone.

Not only that, a 2008 study of Galveston lifeguards showed ozone exposure had near immediate effects on lung capacity. The city of Galveston then imposed an ozone alert system on beaches because when one thinks “lifeguard” one thinks “Baywatch” beach bodies not “feeble” or “infirm.” When you think environmental alarmists, the first word to pop in your head probably isn't "Texas."

Short-term exposure was also found in an study published by the American Heart Association that established a possible link to cardiovascular health – meaning a whole new anatomical system is involved here.

Chinese researchers found ozone can kill people, if exposure is on a large enough scale. It’s so bad in the Middle Kingdom that the country is engaged in a “War on Pollution,” which empowered the state to target individual corporate leaders with detention and fines, linked civil servant advancement to cleaner air and allowed outside environmental groups to file suit in Chinese courts.

And a California study of 11,000 children over a 25-year span showed that kids' lungs don't fully form, and even grow slower when exposed to ozone. While kids' respiratory health has improved with air quality, even short-term exposure to ozone can affect young lungs. On the other hand, the turnaround can also be pronounced once levels are decreased. 

We're not there yet. Let's keep it that way.

When I talked to Gorman, she was to the point, direct and neutral in her language. She also wanted to make sure I didn’t use the term “catalyze” wrong, Googled it and waved me off my initial definition of how sunlight creates ozone. I point that out to say she wasn’t anything like pressing the panic button, unless one counts a writer’s loose interpretations of scientific terms as cause for panic.

The Tucson area is a ways off from the sort of danger that would prompt the feds to declare the area a "non-attainment zone." Living in such a zone isn't quite like being under a school district "deseg" order (that never seems to end) but it can add more regulations and more headaches to certain activities. 

If you don't want more government, maybe take some action now.

Gorman told me a few things you can do: Put gas in the tank later in the day. Is that too Saul Alinskyish (swear to God, most have no idea who he is or what he did but he seems to be the name associated with "killing the free market")? The VOCs released during the late morning at the pump mix with sunlight to create more ozone. After work? No problem. 

Or how about walking into the fast food joint and not idling in the drive through? We're not destroying smokestack industry thusly, are we? Cars that aren't moving produce more pollutants needlessly. Sometimes, this one isn't even a time-saver. 

If that's not hard enough, there's always carpooling.

And here's a crazy idea that Gorman is too smart to recommend to Tucsonans: it isn't necessary to drive absolutely everywhere. We needn't drive to the mailbox or fire up the Tacoma to whisk us a quarter-mile to the nearest Walgreen's. There are entire cities where people walk as a matter of course, as preposterous as it seems to a community that would drive from the bed to the bathroom if it could figure out how to park next to the night stand.

The point is that we need to keep an eye on things like our air quality while that concept is still figurative. If we're able to keep an eye on our air, that's when the trouble starts.

Blake Morlock is an award-winning columnist, who worked in daily journalism for nearly 20 years and is the former communications director for the Pima County Democratic Party.


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