It would be understandable for someone who spent much time outdoors in Houston on Sunday afternoon, June 5, to hope that all those scientists turn out to be wrong with all their projections of an even hotter climate with all its related health problems lying ahead, thanks to human-created pollution.
The official temperature reached 105 degrees Sunday, which the Houston Chronicle noted was not just a record high for the city on June 5, but also “the highest temperature ever seen in June” – and with summer still two weeks off.
It also hit 105 in Houston on Monday, June 6 – another city record – with more record heat forecast. And Houston was not alone: News organizations have been reporting records in other Texas cities, including the hottest spring in Austin history, Abilene’s hottest recorded May temperature (109), and the nation’s highest temperature (105) on June 2 in the shady Big Thicket of Southeast Texas – the first time in one Beaumont meteorologist’s decades-long career that he could remember a national high in that region.
The Chronicle duly took note of the health risks posed by the brutally hot conditions, reporting that some of the 70,000 youthful rock enthusiasts at a festival held at a downtown Houston park on Sunday couldn’t handle the heat, despite organizers’ careful planning:
“Water, misting tents and medical attention provided some relief to those overwhelmed by the high temperatures and humidity. At least three people were transported to the hospital with heat exhaustion, organizers said.”
The Chronicle likewise had reported last week that the 100-degree reading on June 2 marked the hottest recorded temperature on that date in Houston history, plus the earliest triple-digit reading ever. In that story, an official of Harris County’s Ben Taub General Hospital was quoted:
“It’s just early. We’ve just seen a sudden increase in heat-related illnesses of people presenting in the emergency room.”
As it happened, June 2 was also the date that the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), a research and advocacy organization, released a study projecting that Texas will be heavily impacted by a perhaps less-obvious heat-related health threat in a world where manmade global warming is growing more intense.
That threat is ground-level ozone, also commonly called smog. Researchers have warned for years that ozone in the lower atmosphere will be aggravated by human-propelled global warming, which was an announced factor in the Environmental Protection Agency’s decision to regulate gases that are blamed for heating the atmosphere.
Ozone, a form of oxygen that causes an assortment of breathing problems, forms in sunlight when certain chemical pollutants from vehicles, industry and other sources mix and react with one another. Hot weather is especially conducive to the formation of ozone, a longstanding air-quality problem in Houston-Galveston, Dallas-Fort Worth and Beaumont-Port Arthur, among dozens of other metropolitan areas nationwide.
UCS said its study had:
[…] found climate change-induced ozone increases could result in 2.8 million additional serious respiratory illnesses, 5,100 additional infants and seniors hospitalized with serious breathing problems, and 944,000 additional missed school days in the United States in 2020.
All told, these and other health-related impacts could cost approximately $5.4 billion. And if global warming pollution continues unabated, these impacts and costs could be significantly higher.
In terms of costs, it found that California would be hit hardest, followed by Texas, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, North Carolina, New Jersey and Virginia. These states are most vulnerable because they have a combination of the largest number of residents living in urban areas, large numbers of children and seniors, and high levels of nitrogen oxides and VOC emissions from vehicles and power plants.
The researchers projected that if ozone-forming pollution is not reduced and manmade warming creates conditions adding an extra 2 parts per billion of ozone, Texas’ extra health-related costs would range from $79.53 million to nearly $1.17 billion in 2020. Extra “acute respiratory symptoms” in the state would range from 147,140 to 431,000, the researchers calculated.
To place 2 parts per billion, or ppb, into ozone context, the current federal standard – the maximum legal amount in a city’s air – is an eight-hour average reading of 75 ppb. The EPA is planning to lower that maximum allowable concentration, based on more recent scientific findings about ozone’s harmfulness at lower levels. Previously, the EPA had a one-hour standard of 120 ppb, but phased it out in favor of what it considered a more protective eight-hour rule.
Whether manmade warming had anything to do with it or not, various locations in Texas have been experiencing elevated ozone levels during the hot weather of recent days, as illustrated both by the state government’s alerts that high-ozone weather conditions have been forecast and by some of the recorded measurements themselves.
On Monday, June 6, for instance, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality posted a map on its website that showed the highest readings for the day above 75 ppb in the Houston-Galveston, Beaumont-Port Arthur, Dallas-Fort Worth, Austin and San Antonio areas. Based on the federal government’s Air Quality Index, readings reached in the “orange” range – “unhealthy for sensitive groups” – in the Houston-Galveston and DFW areas, and the “red” range – “unhealthy” for everyone – at places in the Houston-Galveston and Beaumont-Port Arthur areas. Austin and San Antonio had “moderate” readings in the “yellow” range.
On May 25, an article examining the connections between climate change, ozone and children’s health was posted in Health Leader, an online magazine published by the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston. The article was a Q-A interview with Dr. Susan Pacheco, a pediatric immunologist and assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics at the center’s Medical School.
Pacheco’s responses to the magazine’s questions included these remarks:
We are becoming more aware of the relationship among increased use of fossil fuels, climate change and its effects on our health, in particular the decrease in air quality and increase in pollution. Air pollution is a known lung irritant that induces inflammation in the airways and exacerbates chronic lung disease, allergies and asthma. Asthma affects more than 20 million people in the United States, with 6.3 million cases occurring in children.
According to the American Lung Association, people who work or spend long periods of time outdoors are at greater risk for the effects of air pollution. Because children spend more time outdoors, they are particularly vulnerable to the noxious effects of air pollution and ground-level ozone. Children growing up in big cities may be most vulnerable, especially if they live near a high-traffic area. These exposures may allow for the development of asthma and adversely affect normal lung development. Increased asthma- related admissions to hospitals and intensive care units have been documented in children on days with high ozone and particulate matter in the air.
Ground-level ozone is “man-made.” It results when pollution created by automobile exhaust or industrial emissions mixes with heat and sunlight. These chemicals react with oxygen in the air, producing ozone, or O3. As temperatures rise, more ozone will be created from pollution.
Other events stemming from climate change affect the occurrence of respiratory diseases and will add further insult to our airways. Increased hurricane severity and increased moisture in the environments, together with increased circulation of molds and pollen has proven detrimental to asthmatics and individuals with chronic lung disease. Following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, there was a spike in asthma attacks around New Orleans.
All of us can make modifications in our lifestyles that will impact our health and the health of our planet. We can reduce carbon dioxide output every day by decreasing the amount of energy we use.
Meanwhile, Jed Anderson, a Houston attorney who represents industry on air-quality matters, commented on the UCS study in one of his periodic email commentaries to individuals and groups involved in those issues. Anderson has been campaigning to reform the complex, U.S.-required process, which dates to the early 1970s, through which states adopt regulatory plans to reduce ozone-forming pollutants in cities that violate the federal health standard.
His June 3 message included these observations:
Another study just released on the impacts of climate change on ozone levels in the United States. Texas is predicted to be the second most impacted state according to this study.
Let’s see. We’ve got interrelated problems with interrelated solutions — all of which sometimes overlap and conflict. Yet despite these interrelationships, overlaps, and conflicts — we continue to follow an air-quality planning process that consists of looking at each of these issues [ozone and climate change] separately in relative isolation to one another.
Time to transform the [ozone planning] process into a comprehensive, multi-pollutant planning process that coordinates, prioritizes, and pursues reduction efforts in the most efficient way possible considering various air quality and climate change goals.
– Bill Dawson