Everyone knows the importance of avoiding sunburn and the precautions to take. But there's another injury that can occur on a summer day that's harder to avoid — breathing invisible ground-level ozone that results in a "sunburn" in our lungs.
For the healthy adult, the symptoms on high ozone days can include chest tightness, difficulty breathing, burning in the throat and coughing. For children, who have smaller lungs and tend to spend more time outdoors in active play, the immediate and long-term impacts on their health and lung development are even more worrisome. For someone with asthma or other respiratory problems, high ozone days can even be life-threatening.
How do we know we have a problem in Utah? All seven counties in the northwestern part of the state — from Utah to Cache to Tooele — already have ozone levels at or above the maximum limit set by the federal government. And with the EPA expected to lower that limit to better protect human health, more counties — including Washington and San Juan — are going to be in violation of national standards.
Of course, we don't need government data to tell us we've got a problem. While ozone is invisible, some of the same chemicals that produce ozone also produce the very visible brown cloud settling in over our valleys in recent weeks.
While we can protect our skin from harmful ultraviolet rays with sunscreen and clothing, there's nothing we can wear or apply during our everyday lives to protect our lungs from the air we breathe. The good news is that ground-level ozone and particulate pollution are problems we can address.
Ground-level ozone is produced when nitrogen oxides from vehicles, power plants and other combustion sources combine with volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, from sources like cars, factories and gas stations and the mixture is heated by the sun. As individuals, we can do our part by reducing the amount of nitrogen oxides and VOCs we produce. That means driving less, carpooling or taking public transportation when air quality is deteriorating. But we also need the government and industries to do their part.
Coal-burning power plants are big emitters of nitrogen oxides and the EPA is finally requiring the oldest plants to upgrade their pollution controls to take the vast majority of their harmful nitrogen oxides out of our air. Recently, in New Mexico, the EPA determined that the 40-year-old San Juan Generating station near Four Corners will need to install selective catalytic reduction technology to cut its nitrogen oxide pollution by 80 percent. That's good news for southern Utah since these emissions blow far and wide. And there's more good news for Utah if the EPA requires similarly strong pollution reduction measures for another coal-burning plant just over the state line in Nevada's Clark County — the 1960s-era Reid Gardner power plant that releases more than 4,000 tons of nitrogen oxides each year.
Of course, installing modern pollution controls on old coal plants is costly and transitioning to more renewable power from clean sources like solar and wind is the best solution. But as long as old coal plants are running, they've got to modernized. The same upgrades the EPA has required at the San Juan plant in New Mexico would cut Reid Gardner's nitrogen oxide emissions by 90 percent, take thousands of tons of pollution out of our air and, according to the Clean Air Task Force, save about $28 million a year in public health costs.
We can all do our part with lifestyle changes to reduce air pollution, and we should. But there's no sunscreen for ozone. We need to make sure big polluters like Reid Gardner and other aging coal plants are required to install the best possible pollution control technology, so we can all breathe a little easier.
Michelle Hofmann is a pediatrician and board member of Breathe Utah, a local nonprofit dedicated to advancing real solutions to Utah's air quality problems.