Houston’s air quality: ‘The particles lodge deep down in the lungs’

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With summer unofficially here and Texans spending more time outdoors, there is an invisible danger to keep in mind – especially for those living in the Houston region.

Houston is slipping upward in the ranking of America’s most polluted cities, and as climate change only worsens ground-level ozone pollution. In 2016, roughly 6.7 million Houstonians were exposed to 85 days of degraded air quality, according to the latest report by research and environmental advocacy group Environment Texas.Those figures translate to about one in five days a year with unsafe air for Houstonians.

In April, an American Lung Association report found that the Houston-Woodlands area jumped from 11th to 9th in a ranking of U.S. cities with the most high ozone days. Of concern is for those unable to stay indoors, or for those who live near a highway, factory or oil refinery.

“People who are constantly breathing in those pollution particles have an increased risk for lung cancer,” JoAnna Strother, advocacy director for the American Lung Association, told the Texas Signal.

“The particles are very small, and so they lodge very deep down into the lungs and get trapped,” she said. She noted that children, the elderly and people with pulmonary diseases are the most at-risk groups.

While figures don’t yet exist to understand how many Houstonians or Texans are suffering premature deaths because of the toxic air they breathe, there are an estimated 4.2 million premature deaths globally are linked to ambient air pollution.  

The environment just isn’t a priority

Ilan Levin, associate director for the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project, told us the reason for the state’s poor air quality mostly lies with agencies like the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) and the Environmental Protection Agency, who job it is to enforce existing pollution laws.

“Government agencies aren’t rewarded for going after polluters,” Levin said. “In Texas, the environmental agency sees its job as growing the economy. That’s part of their mission.”

An Environment Texas report released earlier this year found that Texas companies spewed 63 million pounds of illegal emissions into the air, including sulfur dioxide, benzener, and volatile organic compounds. Researchers estimated that if the Republican-led TECQ would have chosen to aggressively punish those incidents, they could raise $2.3 billion in fines.

Instead, they issued fines totalling $1.2 million that year.

Finding a solution

Last month, following two petro-chemical fires in the region, Harris County officials voted to increase the budget of county’s environmental crimes unit to tackle more pollution-related crimes in the Houston area.

It’s just one example of what local governments can do to crackdown on toxic air.

Personal responsibility, or each of us doing our part to protect the environment, also comes into play. But there’s only so much citizens and local governments can do.

Putting people in office who make the environment an actual priority, even in business-rich Texas, is the quickest and most effective way to change the paradigm. Texans will have to decide how important clean air — and the environment generally – is to them in the voting booth. What’s required is a massive shift in the state’s long-standing do-nothing attitude.

On pollution, Levin summed it up. “It’s a failure of enforcement, it’s a failure of permitting, and honestly it’s a failure of political will.”

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