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Kathy Jacobs says she’s worried about the number of hot days Arizona is seeing, and specifically how it is impacting our air and her kids.
“The number of hot days, whether I have to worry about whether I can put my kids out to play or not is scary,” Jacobs said.
Jacobs, who heads up the Center for Climate Adaptation Science and Solutions at the University of Arizona, said that the record-breaking heat the state and the world has been experiencing has an impact on air quality that often goes unnoticed.
Climate change means that some areas of the world are experiencing more heat, leading to more dangerous wildfires and more days of 100 degree temperatures or more. Add on that metropolitan cities like Phoenix are growing at a fast rate, and you get what Jacobs calls the “double whammy.”
The mixture of climate change and human expansion is leading to more days where air quality is dangerous for people with pre-existing health issues, children and the elderly, Jacobs said.
Ozone, or trioxygen, is both a natural and man-made gas that helps protect the Earth from harmful ultraviolet light when it is high up in the atmosphere. But when it is closer to ground level, it contributes to smog and can cause a number of serious health effects.
An analysis of data from the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality shows that Phoenix in recent years has been experiencing more days where the level of ozone in the air exceeds health and safety standards.
For example, in 2015, Phoenix experienced 33 exceedance days for the whole year. In 2022, the region experienced 53, a 60% increase.
But it isn’t all doom and gloom, and the recent trends don’t mean that air quality is worse than it was a couple generations ago.
“When you look back 50 years and more, air quality has improved,” JoAnna Strother, senior director for advocacy for the American Lung Association, told the Arizona Mirror, adding that the passage of the Clean Air Act in 1963 helped immensely. “We definitely still have major concerns, health concerns, over the burden of air pollution.”
The Department of Environmental Quality and Maricopa County monitor ozone in the Phoenix metro area using more than 20 monitoring stations. In Maricopa County, most of these monitors are on the east side of the Valley — and for good reason, said Matt Pace, air quality meteorologist for ADEQ.
Westerly winds that run through the Valley means that the best place to monitor these conditions is on the east side.
“A lot of modeling goes into where these monitors are,” Pace said.
Since ozone is invisible, ADEQ and others rely heavily on these monitors, which tell the agencies what level of ozone is currently in the atmosphere. More than 70 parts per billion means that ozone is in excess and those with sensitivities should be careful, but it isn’t until levels reach over 100 parts per billion that things can become dangerous, Pace said.
Since 2015, the state has seen levels over 100 once, according to the ADEQ data.
That was in 2021, when the state experienced over 1,700 wildfires. Among them was the Telegraph Fire, the sixth largest in Arizona history, which burned more than 180,000 acres and took about a month to contain.
The same month the fire was burning, the Greater-Phoenix area experienced a day with an ozone level of 108. Smoke from the fire found its way to the Valley and created high levels of ozone, as well as small and larger particulate matter.
Wildfires in Arizona and the nation have been becoming more aggressive and frequent as the impacts of drought and climate change grip the southwest.
Even fires outside Arizona can have a negative effect on air quality here. Smoke and smog from California can drift over on those westerly winds and sit over the Phoenix area.
Geography also plays a role in the Phoenix area’s air quality. The region sits basically in a bowl surrounded by mountains, with an inversion above that bowl that traps the pollution and air below it, leading to high ozone and other pollutant levels.
These inversions can cause pollution to “sit” over the Valley for sometimes days at a time.
“Climate change really is making it definitely hard to clean up and more burdensome for states like Arizona that have heat and sunlight most of the year,” Strother said.
That brown cloud residents can see over South Mountain is usually caused by a strong inversion.
Studies have shown that high levels of pollutants in the air, which includes ozone, lead to an increase in emergency room visits for patients with heart issues such as arrhythmias.
“Our results add evidence to the fact that a high concentration of air pollution is associated with an increased number of people seeking emergency aid,” one study concluded. “Since people with [atrial fibrillation] have a 5-fold increased risk of stroke, even a modest risk associated with exposure to high levels of air pollution would largely increase the attributable risk in the general population.”
Clearing the air
For Jacobs, it is about trying to find equitable solutions in order to help combat bad air quality while also finding solutions to other impacts from things like climate change instead of just coping with this reality.
“We can adapt all we want with air conditioning, but that doesn’t help my kids with cabin fever,” Jacobs said, adding that those who have an alternative to burning things such as wood or trash should use those alternatives in order to not “leave this as a legacy to our kids and grandkids.”
On days where levels are forecasted or are currently reaching excess levels, the state and counties institute “no burn days,” which aim to alleviate some of the impacts of bad air quality.
But Jacobs said that only can go so far.
“Mitigation is first, let’s just stop burning stuff,” she said, adding that moving to electric modes of transportation would help immensely.
To Jacobs, that burden should first fall on local governments, whose fleets run around the clock. Switching those vehicles to electric would have a significant impact on daily emissions.
Strother with the American Lung Association agrees.
Other states, including neighboring New Mexico and Colorado, have adopted clean car standards which tell auto manufacturers that a certain percentage of cars built and sold in the state must be electric.
Phoenix, Tempe and Tucson have all begun to adopt climate action plans, which have become a target for conservatives who plan to undo many of the regulatory changes aimed at addressing these impacts.
There are federal standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency, though Strother said they aren’t strong enough.
The current EPA standards say that 70 ppb of ozone is dangerous, but clean air advocates are calling on President Joe Biden to strengthen them. An advisory panel of scientists urged the EPA to change those standards, but the agency has put off the move until after the 2024 election.
“What we have right now by the EPA is not protective enough. We want to see something stronger,” Strother said.
An analysis of the data from ADEQ found that the average exceedance level for the Phoenix area from 2015 to 2023 is approximately 75.8 ppb. The annual average has been climbing since 2015.
But Pace says that there is good news.
Since 1990, there has been a 68% reduction in emissions overall, and groups like ADEQ know when air quality generally spikes in the levels of ozone and other pollutants. The Valley sees around 40 to 50 of these days on average each year, with peaks in the summer months and around holidays like New Year’s and Christmas, when more people burn fires in their homes.
Arizona residents can also track air quality, which is especially important for those at risk, using the ADEQ website or the agency’s app.
“There has been a significant reduction in emissions. There is still work to do, though,” Pace said, adding that other lingering questions still remain such as the impact of wildfires and determining what the “background ozone” is.
For Jacobs, it is still about what kind of world she is leaving to her kids and grandchildren and how she can better that world in the present. A big part of that is education, she said.
“It is hard to adapt to bad air quality,” Jacobs lamented, noting that an air filter in your house doesn’t change the air outside. “It is kind of up to us to decide what we are willing to do to reduce that cabin fever, improve our air quality and length of life for our people.”
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