It’s no secret that Houston’s air is filthy, but Tuesday featured the highest concentration of ground-level ozone in several years, peaking shortly after 3 p.m.
The effects of high concentration in ozone can be dangerous; the pollutants can trigger asthma attacks, and mortality rates rise slightly in the days following the peak, said Barry Lefer, a professor in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences who studies pollution and climate change. Even healthy individuals can experience negative health effects.
“It’s kind of like a sunburn on your lungs,” Lefer said. “It’s oxidizing them and burning them, so you’ll have shortness of breath and dizziness.”
Lefer and his UH colleagues collect data from five monitoring towers around Houston, one of which is located on the University of Houston’s main campus.
“We can see how much pollution is coming towards Houston, how much pollution is in Houston and how much pollution is being exported out of town,” Lefer said.
“What’s different about (Tuesday) compared to other days? Every day you have people driving their cars and the power plants doing their thing and the oil refineries doing their stuff,” Lefer said. “The answer is the weather.”
Ozone levels rise on hot, sunny days when the wind isn’t blowing, Lefer said.
“(Ozone) doesn’t come out of the tailpipes of cars; it doesn’t come out of the power plants. It’s the precursors that come out,” he said. “So on a windy day, all that stuff gets blown out of town, but on these days with very light wind speed, it has time to cook.”
Children and people who have lung conditions like asthma are especially susceptible, Lefer said, but everyone should be careful about exerting themselves outside when the ozone levels are at an unhealthy level.
“The problem is that on days like today, it’s really nice,” Lefer said. “Often times, people go out and exercise, which is what you don’t want to do.”
As to the long term health effects of pollution, people who grow up in high-pollution areas like Houston tend to have weaker lungs, Lefer said.
It’s unusual for ozone levels to spike at this time of year; ozone concentration usually peaks once in April or May and again in August, September or October, Lefer said.
“There’s sort of two peaks in ozone,” he said. “But every year is different, because it’s really weather dependent.”