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Summary of the Issues: Air Pollution

Houston's air quality has long suffered. Much of the city's air pollution problem is due to its proximity to the ship channel industries which compose the largest petrochemical complex in the nation- comprising over 60 percent of the country's petrochemical industry. In 2000, an analysis of the city's air revealed that industry had been consistently underreporting its emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs)- precursors to ozone- by a factor of 3 to 10 times. Ground-level ozone, also known as smog, is Houston's most prevalent air pollution problem. In fact, Houston rivals Los Angeles as the country's smoggiest city. There is, however, a major difference in the sources of the cities' air pollution. The majority of Los Angeles' smog creating emissions comes from its vehicles, while only about a quarter of our smog forming pollution emanates from automobile tailpipes. The industries along the ship channel contribute overwhelmingly to Houston's air pollution problem.

This year again, we lead the nation as the city with the most severe ozone problem. We have racked up the titles for the highest single measurement of ozone pollution in the country, the most days exceeding the 1-hr ozone standard, and the third most days exceeding the 8-hr standard. In April a professor at Texas A&M found that Houston's ozone concentration during the summer was often two to three times higher than the government standard.

The American Lung Association claims that running in a heavily polluted city, like Houston, is equivalent to smoking a pack of cigarettes a day! The short-term health effects of ground-level ozone include reduced ability to breathe, inflammation of the lung tissue, irritation of the nose and throat, and damage to respiratory cells. Long-term exposure to smog has been linked to an increased risk of cancer and even death.

Particulate Matter (PM) is another form of air pollution that affects the health of Houstonians. Particles larger than 2.5 microns in diameter (a human hair is about 7 microns in width) are known as "coarse" particles. The sources of these larger particles include crushing and grinding operations and windblown dust. So called "fine" particles are less than 2.5 microns and are generated by fuel combustion (from automobiles, power generation and industrial facilities), residential fireplaces and wood stoves. Fine particles can be formed in the atmosphere from gases such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and volatile organic compounds. Those exposed to particulate matter may suffer a number of symptoms including, a persistent cough, a sore throat, burning eyes, wheezing, shortness of breath, and tightness of the chest. PM can also trigger asthma and may lead to premature death, especially in the elderly who are more likely to have preexisting cardiovascular and respiratory diseases.

A much more toxic emission, mercury, is a potent neurotoxin that is believed to cause learning disabilities, delays in development, and fine motor coordination problems. Mercury can also interfere with the functions of multiple organ systems, like the heart, the brain, nervous system, and immune system. Texas leads the nation in air emissions of mercury, the majority of which comes from coal-fired power plants. Recently, the EPA, pressured by the Bush administration, proposed that by 2018 mercury emissions need only be cut by 70%. Just four years ago, the Agency believed it to be ￿appropriate and necessary￿ to reduce mercury air emissions by 90%.

Air-borne mercury settles in lakes and rivers where it accumulates in marine life and seafood which we ingest. The US Public Interest Research Group analyzed data accumulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) between 1999 and 2001, which examined fish for toxic mercury in a representative sample of 260 U.S. lakes and reservoirs. Every fish in the sample was contaminated with mercury, and most of the fish contained levels that could pose a public health risk.

Air pollution affects our vegetation, agriculture, and is hazardous to our lifestyles and health. Air pollution has been linked to increases in medical costs and a depreciation in quality of life and poses significant global threats in the form of global warming and ozone depletion.

Nationally more than 150 million tons of pollutants are pumped out into the air we breathe each year. Although over the past few decades progress has been made, significant problems in air quality still persist. The problems of pollution truly come from a variety of sources including our own individual lifestyles. Reduce air pollution and help protect quality of life for future generations.


Get the latest reports on air pollution issues facing Houston and the surrounding areas.


Use our resources to make an environmental complaint.


Discover what levels of ozone are bad for your health and just how many ozone days Houston really has had.


Get access to the latest studies on air pollution and its effects on health and the environment.


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