Study: Elevated Ozone Levels Could Increase Respiratory Deaths, Illnesses

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The skyline of San Antonio is visible through the trees on the outskirts of downtown.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

A layer of smog clouds the San Antonio skyline.

Bexar County’s ozone levels exceed the Environmental Protection Agency’s most recent standard, according to a study released by the City’s Office of Sustainability last week. This is the first local analysis that directly addresses how ground-level ozone pollution impacts San Antonio’s public health and economy.

According to the report, the county’s ozone levels hover around 73 parts per billion, slightly above the EPA’s standard of 70 parts per billion, set in 2015.

San Antonio Metropolitan Health District Director Colleen Bridger told the Rivard Report Monday that the ozone standard was initially created to improve public health. It is based on scientific evidence that ground-level ozone pollution can cause health problems and be particularly dangerous for people with respiratory diseases such as asthma.

“People need to better understand that ozone up high is a protective layer,” Bridger said. “But when you breathe in ground-level ozone, three components come together and become dangerous for the lungs.”

Bridger is referring to the chemical reaction that happens when certain man-made and natural chemical pollutants directly interact with the sun. She explained that the sun’s ultraviolet rays convert these emissions into ground-level ozone – generally referred to as smog – which is unhealthy to breathe.

“As climate changes, there will be corresponding health impacts,” Bridger said, adding that those could include an increase in vector-borne illnesses and weather events that put medically fragile people at risk. As the climate warms – an ever-present threat in South Texas – those consequences could worsen, she added.

Published in September, but released by the City on Nov. 21, the study revealed that San Antonio would see an additional 19 respiratory deaths per year if its ozone levels rise to 80 parts per billion, and would avoid 24 deaths annually if ozone levels drop below 68 parts per billion. The deaths of 19 people due to ozone-related respiratory issues would cost $170 million, the study found, while the 24 avoided deaths would save a total of $220 million.

Bridger explained that the numbers are not reflective of healthcare costs over time; rather they attempt to quantify the value of a life.

“If this many people die at these various ages you have lost this value in dollars,” Bridger said. “These are people who can no longer work, raise a family, contribute to the economy.”

According to a recent EPA report, out of 3,142 counties in the United States, 2,646 have met the air quality standard. This number includes non-county administrative or statistical areas that are comparable to counties, according to the report. However, the federal agency has yet to hand down any sanctions for counties that have not maintained the standard as of its Oct. 1 attainment deadline.

Douglas Melnick, chief sustainability officer with the city, explained that Bexar County is taking extra steps to address both air quality and climate change, regardless of what’s happening on the national stage. And while there is “only so much that a city can do,” he said, San Antonio is addressing the issue.

In June, Mayor Ron Nirenberg joined more than 300 U.S. mayors in support of the Paris Climate Agreement by signing a pledge to uphold the accord’s environmental policies aimed at countering global climate change.

The City has partnered with the University of Texas at San Antonio to research and evaluate best-practices for climate change, made possible by funding through CPS Energy. Researchers will work on updating the City’s greenhouse gas inventory and collaborate with organizations and community members to reduce emissions.

“It’s about quality of life,” Melnick said. “It’s about the future for people’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren.”

 

10 thoughts on “Study: Elevated Ozone Levels Could Increase Respiratory Deaths, Illnesses

  1. One of the best things we can do is to further promote the use of electric cars. The Mayor could possibly help by encouraging more businesses to provide electric car charging for employees at work. For many electric car owners, access to a standard 120 volt outlet to charge while they are working is adequate. I am well educated on this subject, my wife and I both drive electric cars every day. I know first hand that S.W.R.I. and USAA both allow employees to plug-in while at work, the cost to the company is almost nothing but the benefit to the environment is substantial.

    • most people cannot afford electric cars. one of the best things we could do is create a city with good/reliable/rapid transit, density (stop promoting sprawl), and walkability. Until then, the ozone levels won’t change.

      • I would agree that the most affordable electric cars may not be practical for everyone. However, as far as cost to purchase and maintain, these cars are getting more practical every day. My wife and I both drive Nissan Leaf’s which we purchased used. Each of our Nissan Leaf’s cost less than $10,000 and both are in very good condition. These cars also have very low maintenance cost. The limited driving range is surely the biggest disadvantage of these cars, but that’s where having the ability to charge while at work can make these cars more practical for more people.

        I also agree that we need more reliable public transit and a lot more bicycle lanes.

    • One of the BEST things we can do?!

      Hmmm…

      Perhaps, IF non-particulate air pollution was the only issue requiring our immediate attention.

      Unfortunately, air pollution from particulate matter (including rubber), water pollution (by way of storm run-off), light pollution (from the illumination of roadways) and noise pollution are all directly attributable to our society’s overuse of private motor vehicles for transport (a.k.a. “autocentrism”) – and we haven’t even begun to address rampant and guideless suburban/exurban “sprawl,” traffic congestion, public safety (especially for pedestrians and bicyclists) and our overall quality of life.

      Electric vehicles which are also autonomous and “connected” (the eventual goal of most so-called “driverless” technologies) would provide a good starting place for substantive change. Still, as susan has already stated, “one of the best things we could do is create a city with good/reliable/rapid transit, density (stop promoting sprawl), and walkability. Until then, the ozone levels won’t change.”

      And they really won’t.

      So, the question of the hour is pretty simple: do we truly CARE about the consequences of breathing air we can see, or is this just the latest cause du jour?

      More to the point, which is more important: public health, or our ownership and operation of automobiles?

      I’m afraid I know the answer.

      [sigh]

  2. At the county level, maybe we could encourage the county judge to meet with all the municipal representatives and together apply for state and federal grants to radically increase electric vehicle infrastructure for public vehicles. And I would love to see VIA and partner agencies ramp up an extensive (county-wide) BaRT system, with many routes, days, and times that encourage residents like me to ditch my car at least 3 days of the week.

    If the state and feds are still feeling domestic spending-averse, how about we set up a big 5-year county bond to build it, and then maintain it with an increase to VIA’s take on the tax to 3/4 of a cent? I’d vote for them.

  3. Thank you for the Rivard story on dangers of ozone. The story states that a certain number of asthma-ill people die at current bad ozone levels.

    This story makes me think of lots of questions. At what bad ozone levels will “healthy” people die? How much should the government help through regulation? Will the government help without public pressure? Will car congestion and car congestion problems become a motivator for reducing gasoline-car pollution? How should we prioritize the mass transit solutions? How safe will it be to walk or bike along congested streets? Studies show that due to exponential population growth, serious car congestion and car congestion problems are inevitable.

    On the positive side, San Antonio will soon have over 200 mile of nature trails, larger than the size of loop Loop 410. For people who are interested, these nature trails are available for pleasure, for health, for going to stores, and for reducing car pollution. The current two official websites for nature trails are the City Parks and Recreation and the San Antonio River Authority. You can find these and other trail- related websites in the following website link: http://www.NatureTrailMaps.net.

  4. Thank you for the Rivard story on dangers of ozone. The story states that a certain number of asthma-ill people die at current bad ozone levels.

    This story makes me think of lots of questions. At what bad ozone levels will “healthy” people die? How much should the government help through regulation? Will the government help without public pressure? Will car congestion and car congestion problems become a motivator for reducing gasoline-car pollution? How should we prioritize the mass transit solutions? How safe will it be to walk or bike along congested streets? Studies show that due to exponential population growth, serious car congestion and car congestion problems are inevitable.

    On the positive side, San Antonio will soon have over 200 mile of nature trails, larger than the size of loop Loop 410. For people who are interested, these nature trails are available for pleasure, for health, for going to stores, and for reducing car pollution. The current two official websites for nature trails are the City Parks and Recreation and the San Antonio River Authority. You can find these and other trail- related websites in the following website link: http://www.NatureTrailMaps.net.

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