As if Oklahomans needed another reason to despise the record-breaking heat wave that has gripped the state this summer, officials said Wednesday the heat is partly to blame for Oklahoma City doubling its number of ozone-
Thursday is an ozone alert day in Oklahoma City, meaning conditions are right for high ozone levels that could lead to a 31st health advisory. There were 15 of these advisories in 2009 and 15 in 2010.
High ozone levels can be a problem for those with asthma or other respiratory issues, and if levels are too high too often, the state can get in trouble with the federal government.
Penalties could include changes that would
Dr. Dean Atkinson, of the Oklahoma Allergy and Asthma Clinic, said many people bothered by high ozone levels may not even realize it is contributing to their breathing problems.
“If you get high pollution days, it makes it tougher for some people to breathe,” Atkinson said. “It causes agitation of the lungs at higher levels. People with allergies and asthma can be bothered. They tend to have more sinus issues anyway.”
Ozone is a naturally occurring gas at higher levels of the atmosphere that protects the Earth from dangerous ultraviolet light. But at low levels it is man-made from pollutants created by sources like car engines and power plants.
Ozone isn't created by any one pollutant, but rather is a combination of pollutants that essentially cooks in the heat and collects in the air when conditions are right, said Curt Goeller, environmental programs specialist at the state Department of Environmental Quality.
“It has everything to do with pollutants and factors such as which direction the winds are blowing,” Goeller said. “If we get a stagnant situation where we don't get wind for several days in a row, that's what we really don't want to see.”
Oklahoma City broke its record this week for days of triple digit heat in one year. Wednesday marked the 53rd day of 100 degree-plus temperatures, besting the old mark of 50 days set in 1980.
As bad as the heat has been this summer, Goeller said he is surprised ozone levels haven't been worse.
“We've had a lot of heat, but a lot of it has come from the southwest, which is a clean direction for us,” Goeller said.
What to do
The Association of Central Oklahoma Governments coordinates a public education campaign about ozone levels highlighted by ozone alert days, when people are encouraged to fill up their gas tanks in the evening and put off lawn mowing to keep ozone down.
Darla Hugaboom, associate planner for the group, said the campaign has generally been effective.
“We are having a terrible ozone year, but that's only compared to the last three years or so,” Hugaboom said. “If you go back five or 10 years, that's not the case. It has constantly improved over the last 15 years.”
Hugaboom said the response to ozone alert days has improved as more people get the message about things they are not supposed to do on those days.
Though ozone levels have generally improved in the past decade, the federally mandated standards for ozone levels are also getting lower, meaning it will be harder for the city to stay in compliance, Hugaboom said.
Still, she said she's confident that the combination of improved technology and public awareness about the issue will help the city do its part.
“In as little as five years, we could be better than we are now. As we have these lower standards looming, we have to look at the things we can do,” Hugaboom said.