Shared from the 1/30/2020 The Denver Post eEdition
By Bruce Finley The Denver Post
￼Denver residents have been inhaling hazardous air pollution at elevated levels on more than 260 days a year for the past two years, federal records show, as two new studies released this week ranked metro Denver among the top 10 worst U.S. cities for air quality.
People also are breathing bad air regularly in other cities along Colorado’s Front Range, from Colorado Springs to Fort Collins, according to Environmental Protection Agency records.
This pollution disproportionately hurts sensitive groups — people with asthma, children and the elderly — but affects all residents. Beyond respiratory problems, recent research links poor air quality to chronic inflammation and dementia.
And climate warming is expected to intensify air pollution, federal scientists warn, because heat speeds the formation of ground-level ozone and boosts the frequency and severity of wildfires, which infuse more particles into smog.
Air pollution control officials at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment did not dispute the numbers of bad air days tallied by the EPA.
While air pollution levels in Denver generally aren’t as high as they were in the 1980s, health and environmental advocacy groups are questioning whether air-cleaning efforts under Gov. Jared Polis are sufficient to make sure inhaling is healthy under current federal standards.
“We understand that the Denver metro area has a serious problem with air pollution, as reflected in the ‘Serious Ozone Nonattainment’ status, wherever it might rank in comparison to other cities,” state Air Pollution Control Division director Garry Kaufman said.
Kaufman was referring to the EPA’s recent reclassification of Colorado as a serious violator of federal air regulations after the Denver area failed to meet health standards for a decade.
“And we understand that a serious problem requires a serious response,” Kaufman said. “Reducing air pollution is one of our highest priorities, and we are moving aggressively on multiple fronts to achieve this goal. We have had significant success at reducing ozone pollution and other forms of air pollution over the last few decades, but we know this isn’t good enough — we need to build on our successes and improve air quality in the Front Range and across the state.”
Polis administration officials regard efforts to reduce pollution — requiring automakers to offer more zero-emission vehicles, tougher rules for oil and gas industry polluters — as “first steps … that will result in meaningful improvements,” Kaufman said. “We will pursue every option available to us under the law and we will consider every scientifically supported method for minimizing air pollution.”
Responding to queries from The Denver Post, EPA officials provided bad air day tallies from 2018 and 2019.
The EPA uses an Air Quality Index, or AQI, for measuring concentrations of hazardous pollutants in the air people breathe, including ground-level ozone, particulates, sulfur dioxide, lead, carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides. (AQI of 51-100 = moderate degradation; 101-150 = unhealthy for sensitive groups; 150-200 = unhealthy for all.)
Metro Denver residents in 2018 inhaled elevated levels of pollution on 282 days, including 225 days of moderate degradation, 49 days deemed unhealthy for sensitive groups and eight days deemed unhealthy for all, according to federal records. Heavy wildfires in Colorado and the west hurt air quality in many cities that year.
For 2019, the EPA records show at least 265 days during which metro Denver residents inhaled bad air, including 243 moderate days, 20 days unhealthy for sensitive people and two unhealthy for all. EPA officials said their 2019 count is preliminary and will be completed by March 30.
Nearly 3 million people enduring bad air
Following a recent report by The Post that breaks down Colorado air pollution, including heat-trapping greenhouse gases that accelerate climate change, two new analyses of hazardous pollution unveiled this week — using only the EPA’s 2018 data — ranked metro Denver air quality between fourth and 10th worst when compared with other large U.S. cities.
One analysis presented by the advocacy group Environment Colorado counted days during which more than half of the air quality monitoring stations in a city measured elevated ozone and particulate pollution — the most problematic pollutants in many cities nationwide.
Residents of the Denver-Aurora-Lakewood area experienced 131 days of bad air by this criteria, Environment Colorado concluded, ranking metro Denver 10th worst, with nearly 3 million people enduring bad air for 35% of the year.
This analysis was part of a nationwide study that found 108 million Americans lived in areas where air quality was degraded on more than 100 days during 2018. That means these people inhaled ground-level ozone, the main ingredient in smog, and particulate pollution for more than three months of the year at concentrations above the level that the EPA has determined presents little to no health risk. Millions more Americans inhaled air pollution at damaging levels, but less frequently.
The other analysis was done by researchers for insurance industry group 360 Quote, which runs auto insurance pricing websites and conducts studies of interest to clients. These researchers included all measured pollutants, including ozone, fine and coarse particulates, sulfur dioxide, lead, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen dioxide.
They found that metro Denver residents faced an average EPA AQI level of 64, with 274 days in 2018 during which air quality was moderately degraded or unhealthy — more than in almost every other large metro area with populations topping 1 million. The researchers counted eight days that registered unhealthy, with a maximum AQI reading of
174. Denver’s healthy air days in 2018 — an AQI lower than 50 — numbered 83, about 22% of that year.
Only the Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, Phoenix-Mesa-Scottsdale and Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario metro areas had worse air quality than metro Denver in 2018, according to the 360 Quote researchers’ analysis.
Colorado Springs, Greeley and Fort Collins appeared in the rankings of small and medium cities. Environment Colorado researchers found that Colorado Springs ranked 10th among the 10 most populated cities where residents faced more than 100 days of elevated ozone. The 360Quote study ranked Greeley 10th among small cities and Fort Collins 12th among midsized cities for worst air quality.
“The ozone challenge”
The EPA’s recent reclassification of Colorado as a “serious” violator compels state officials to adopt stricter measures and reduce emissions of volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, that lead to the formation of ozone. The oil and gas industry has become a leading source of these hazardous VOCs, along with people who drive vehicles that burn gasoline.
“Our recent action to reclassify the Denver area reflects the intractability of the ozone challenge,” EPA spokesman Rich Mylott said in an emailed response.
“While an analysis of data from 1980 to today shows that air emissions and ozone concentrations are generally trending lower for Denver, there is still work to be done,” Mylott said. “We expect the reclassification to serious … and the state’s continuing efforts to strengthen their air quality implementation plan — including looking at more sources and lower permitting thresholds — will contribute to the pace of progress.”
About 404,012 people in Colorado have asthma, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. And federal census charts show 22% of the state’s population of about 5.7 million are children under 18, with 14% of the population over 65.
“There’s a lot of worry we are not on track. There are good ideas being thrown around but not a lot in specifics, and we’re not seeing a clear path forward to restoring air quality,” said attorney Jeremy Nichols, director of the WildEarth Guardians climate program.
“This is about public health. Public health is suffering,” Nichols said. “Parents should be worried. Families should be worried. This touches everybody. We all have somebody in our family who is part of a sensitive group.”
265 Number of days in 2019 that metro residents inhaled bad air
20 Number of those days that air was unhealthy for sensitive people
2 Number of those days that air was unhealthy for all
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