GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. - Longtime Grand Junction resident and retired teacher Charlie Kerr is very concerned about the air he's breathing, having served on the Mesa County Air Quality Planning Committee for the past 20 years.
Members of the planning committee are appointed by the Mesa County Health Department to advise the county on air quality issues. Committee members are chosen to represent the community at large.
"Air quality is diminishing here. I have friends who choked this winter," Kerr said. "There cannot be enough public awareness of this issue. It's a community problem that can only be solved by the community."
The good news is carbon monoxide pollution from car emissions in the Grand Valley is lessening, thanks to vehicle efficiency standards.
The bad news is motor vehicles still emit precursors to ozone, one of several pollutants that Mesa County Air Quality Specialist Ed Brotsky monitors locally.
"Ozone is a pretty toxic chemical," Brotsky said. "You don't want to breathe it in. Ozone affects heart and lung function. It irritates the respiratory passages, especially for people with cardiac problems already."
Ground level or "bad" ozone is created by chemical reactions between nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds in the presence of sunlight. Major sources of the precursors come from motor vehicle exhaust, gasoline vapors and oil and gas development.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, breathing ozone can trigger a variety of health problems such as chest pain, coughing, throat irritation and congestion. It can also worsen bronchitis, emphysema and asthma.
Ground level ozone can also reduce lung function, inflame the lining of the lungs, and lead to permanent scar lung tissue.
Currently, the EPA standard for ozone is 75 parts per billion. Violations are determined by looking at the annual fourth-highest daily maximum eight-hour concentration, averaged over three years (the top three readings are thrown out).
That ozone reading for the prior two years was 68, which means a value of 89 for 2013 would be required to be in violation, Brotsky said.
The EPA periodically revisits the standards, and while the agency is not supposed to consider potential economic impacts when setting standards for human health, contentious debate between environmentalists and industry lobbyists a couple of years ago caused the agency to abandon the issue for now, Brotsky said.
"There is some evidence that 60 ppb can have adverse effects for healthy people," he said. "If we changed the standard to 60, half the country would be in violation."
Because sunlight is a catalyst for forming ozone, air quality is typically worse during the summertime.
But even during winter, in areas like the Uintah Basin, a remote area in northwest Utah, ozone levels were quite high due to oil and gas development in the area, Brotsky said. The area's unique geography compounded the problem, he said.
Ozone levels were also elevated in Pinedale, Wyo., another rural area with a lot of oil and gas development, Kerr said.
The Clean Air Act requires the EPA to set National Ambient Air Quality Standards for pollutants considered harmful to public health and the environment. Standards have been set for six principal pollutants, called "criteria" pollutants, of which Brotsky collects samples of three: carbon monoxide, ozone and particulates. (Next week's Free Press will look at particulate pollution.)
Brotsky monitors air quality in six locations: Palisade; Clifton; the Mesa County Health Department, 510 29 1/2 Road; two downtown Grand Junction locations; and Colorado National Monument.
"The Cameo coal-powered plant (in DeBeque Canyon, along the Colorado River) was a big source of pollution for Mesa County," Brotsky said. The plant closed in 2011.
While Mesa County currently meets the EPA standard for ozone, the Grand Valley is approaching "non-attainment," meaning the county could in the future violate pollution standards. Some areas of the state, such as Denver, are already in non-compliance.
When communities violate federal pollution standards, the state works locally with groups to turn it around or risk losing federal funding for projects such as transportation.