Sunny skies. Light winds. Hot temperatures. One might think this a description of an ideal summer day, one that is perfect for swimming, a picnic or a hike.
In fact, these days it is just as likely a recipe for an “ozone action alert.” You know, when you wake up, have a cup of coffee and hear that ping on your phone?
It’s an air alert that smog levels are unhealthy for sensitive groups, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. I had three last week.
Who is it unsafe for? Children, the elderly, people with asthma, respiratory diseases or heart problems. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 9.3% of the population has asthma in Colorado. That’s more than 400,000 people.
Most families have children or elderly members. So, breaking this down, what we are being told is simple: folks, do not go outside and breathe in Colorado.
We are so accustomed to these alerts, we do not even think about them much. They are merely an annoyance. But let’s unpack them a little here. What is an ozone alert exactly? What causes excess ozone? In short what is this syndrome that threatens our public health and abducts our most beautiful summer days? And why are we having so many now?
Ozone is a molecule made up of three oxygen atoms. It appears on earth as a pale blue gas that makes up a tiny portion of our atmosphere (.06 parts per million).
Maybe you have been out on one of these ozone action alert days and noticed the scent and haze — some people say it reminds them of the smell of chlorine.
Ozone’s main residence is in our planet’s stratosphere where we can thank it profusely for protecting us all from ultraviolet light from the sun. Think of it as a sort of gaseous sunscreen. Vital, really, but when it is at ground level, it is quite dangerous. Ground-level ozone is formed when high heat and humidity and sunlight combine with oil and gas industrial and vehicle emissions.
After the Clean Air Act passed in the 1970s, urban air pollution and ground level ozone decreased significantly, but about 15 years ago, a date that coincides with the inception of the fracking boom, this changed.
Hydrocarbons inevitably enter our atmosphere from leaks at valves, pipes, separators, compressors, through exhaust vents on tanks and through intentional flaring and venting.
And these hydrocarbon releases can form significant amounts of harmful ground-level ozone. There it is: your ozone action alert day. According to the EPA, Colorado has been out of ozone compliance for the past 10 years.
Measurements taken by the Colorado Department of Health and the Environment and CU Boulder scientists indicate that ozone at Boulder Reservoir is the most severe in the entire state, likely because of winds that carry Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) from industrial activity in Weld County.
Some scientists believe that oil and gas activity contributes 10-15 times more VOCs than the total emissions from all cars in Colorado and that ozone-related health effects are escalating.
Health organizations predict that thousands of people will die prematurely from exposure to oil and gas particulates in Colorado alone, and just this month there was research linking a much higher incidence of babies born with congenital heart defects to mothers who lived in close proximity to oil and gas activity.
The oil and gas industry has utilized a state loophole that does not require the industry to obtain certain permits before drilling.
One CU Boulder study determined that the annual VOCs released into the atmosphere through venting, production and leaks in Weld County could be equivalent to the exhaust of 67 million cars, 2.3 million barrels of oil or 292,000 tons of VOCs.
The good news is that locally, citizens and city councils are challenging the industry. Some citizens of Broomfield are fighting the industrialization of open space where extensive drilling has begun. Moratoriums on new drilling permits have been passed by municipal leaders.
The bad news is that while state and local governments have had significant authority over oil and gas activity, neither Democrats nor Republicans have had the political will to take action to address the climate crisis. And in counties such as Weld, the council is interpreting SB-181 as an invitation for local communities to allow more drilling.
What can the government do? For one thing, the federal government could enforce EPA regulations, penalize violators and incentivize clean energy by providing funding for a just transition to a clean energy jobs program that would create 6.7 million jobs as proposed by the Green New Deal.
All of these measures would make a serious difference. State and local governments can also become more serious about addressing the health and climate crisis.
Colorado is punching above its weight when it comes to generating pollution, and these action alert days are nothing to take lightly.
That is what I think about every day. Will it be a day with an ozone action alert, like today, where breathing the air will be harmful to our health, or will the air be OK to breathe? I’m holding my breath wondering which it will be.
Diana Bray, Psy.D., is a psychologist, mother and candidate for the U.S. Senate.