Denver has cracked the top-ten list for smoggiest cities in the United States, according to a report by the Frontier Group and the Environment America Research & Policy Center that was released today, April 11. The Denver-Aurora-Lakewood area came in at sixth place on the ominous list, with 176 days of “elevated smog pollution.” Out of those 176 days, two were classified as “unhealthy” days by the Environmental Protection Agency, 21 were considered “unhealthy for sensitive groups” such as children and older adults, and 153 days were categorized as “moderate” or “acceptable.” Seven out of the ten communities were located in California, and the Phoenix, Las Vegas and Denver metro areas rounded out the list.
According to the report, which was based on data from 2015, even minimal exposure to ozone pollution can have deleterious health effects, as there is no safe level of exposure to pollution. Extended periods of exposure to smog creates a compound effect, so while 153 days of “moderate” pollution doesn't sound bad, the aggregate affect can create health issues. Those most at risk are children and active adults who spend extended time outdoors. Living next to a freeway or downwind from an airport increases the health risks associated with smog.
“Smog, or ground-level ozone, causes a host of respiratory consequences, ranging from coughing, wheezing and throat irritation, to asthma, increased risk of infection, and permanent damage to lung tissue,” the report states.
The air-quality readings may understate the danger of smog pollution because of the location of the air monitors, according to the report. They offer a broad estimation of regional air quality, but they don't account for areas that could have higher smog levels, such as those close to freeways and heavy industrial activity.
Kimberly Morrow, the campaign organizer for Environment Colorado, says global warming will continue to extend the smog season every year. Higher temperatures could quicken the chemical reactions between burnt fossil fuels and sunlight that create smog; they can also lead to more wildfires and create more smoggy days in the spring and fall.
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Morrow says the best way to combat rising smog levels is to stay the course with President Obama's Clean Power Plan, which was introduced by the EPA in 2014. President Trump, however, has said that he is not willing to do that. “If President Trump changed his mind and instead implemented the Clean Power Plan, by 2030 it would prolong 3,600 lives, prevent 90,000 asthma attacks in children, and keep people healthy on 300,000 days where they otherwise would have missed work or school due to illness,” Morrow wrote in an e-mail.
The report also suggests transitioning to more sustainable forms of energy and transportation. Cars made today are vastly more environmentally friendly than they were in previous decades, but the sheer abundance of them makes car emissions a prime contributor to smog pollution. Moving away from coal production and natural gas and toward wind and solar energy, along with reducing pollution from planes and trains, would also greatly reduce air pollution, according to the report.
While smog levels are higher in the summer, the winter doesn't always offer solace. Particulate-matter pollution, or fine particles containing hundreds of toxic chemicals, can often occur in the winter, even in places with little to no smog pollution. The only community to have no smog pollution in 2016 was located in Hawaii, but that same community had the highest concentration of particulate-matter pollution in the country due to volcanic activity. Fossil-fuel combustion and wildfires, both factors in Colorado, contribute to this form of pollution, and in 2016, the Denver metro area recorded 112 days of elevated particulate-matter pollution, a relatively low number compared to other metro areas across the country.
Morrow says the road to cleaner air starts with protecting initiatives already in place. “We need our Colorado senators to stand up for our health and not let the Trump administration roll back protections on our air," she says. "President Trump is taking an ax to important programs that could help clean up our air, including the Clean Power Plan, the biggest step the United States has ever proposed to address global warming.”