Ozone pollution improving in the U.S.
Air pollution season is here, and the good news is that ozone pollution in 2006 was considerably better than in previous years. Along with pollution due to small particles (particulate matter), ground-level ozone is the most serious pollutant in the U.S. Ozone levels in 2006 showed improvement in 23 out of 35 of the major cities in the U.S. (Figure 1) compared to 2005, and was at or below the 10-year average in all but five cities. Atlanta, Georgia, showed the greatest jump in the number of unhealthy days, from 17 in 2005 to 30 days in 2006; however, this number was still below the 10-year average. Many western cities reached levels at or above the 10-year average, including San Diego, Sacramento, Denver, and Las Vegas. This was in part due to much above average summertime temperatures in the western U.S. (Figure 2). Los Angeles had the worst ozone pollution in the U.S., with 46 unhealthy days. Los Angeles also was the most polluted city overall in 2006, according to the American Lung Association. However, Los Angeles' bad ozone days declined by 16% in 2006 compared to 2005.
Figure 1. The number of days in May through September of 2005 and 2006 in which ground-level ozone reached Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups--an Air Quality Index (AQI) above 100. Corresponding 10-year averages are also shown. Image credit: EPA.
Ozone pollution has improved
Is the improvement seen in ozone levels in 2006 merely due to a lack of meteorological conditions that favor air pollution? To check, I've plotted the difference in surface temperature (degrees C) from May-September 2006, compared to the 10-year average from 1995-2005 (Figure 2). The chemical reactions that form ozone are most efficient at high temperatures, so if the summer of 2006 was cooler than usual, we'd expect a drop in ozone levels. However, the summer of 2006 was the second warmest in U.S. history--but ozone levels still dropped. All of the cities where ozone increased significantly in 2006 over 2005 levels were areas where temperatures were above average. Los Angeles had summer temperatures more than 1 degree C above normal, yet still recorded a drop in ozone, suggesting that strategies to control ozone pollution there are paying dividends. In fact, new rules to limit nitrogen oxide emissions from power plants have been enacted nation-wide in the past few years, and the ozone pollution statistics from 2006 are evidence that these emissions rules are working. Ozone pollution since 1980 has dropped 21% (Figure 3), despite the fact that the average summer temperatures have generally been increasing.
Figure 2. The difference in surface temperature (degrees C) from May-September 2006, compared to the 10-year average from 1995-2005. Temperatures were above the 10-year average across most of the country, except for New Mexico, and portions of the Ohio Valley surrounding Kentucky. Image credit: NCAR/NCEP.
Figure 3. Trends in ozone air pollution in the U.S. (white line) and uncertainty (blue areas, marking the standard deviation). The federal standard of 0.08 ppm is indicated by the dashed line. Since 1980, maximum ozone levels have declined 21%. Since 1990, the decline has been 9%. Note that the lowest ozone levels were recorded in 2004, which was an exceptionally cool summer across most of the U.S. Image credit: U.S. EPA.
Next blog (Thursday): Pollution costs and deaths exceed the impact of a new Hurricane Katrina hitting the U.S. each year.