If the on-again, off-again Saharan dust clouds weren't sign enough that things are tough breathing in this city, there's this: Today the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality smacked Houston with an ozone action alert for the third day in a row. This marks the 18th such alert this year, not far off from the 21 alerts issued in total for all of 2017.
That ground-level ozone they're warning us about—better known by its less fancy "smog" moniker—is bad news for everyone and everything. Lung-shredding ozone particles irritate our airways and increases the risk of asthma attacks by 45 percent after three days of exposure. Dogs breathing smog can develop debilitating coughs. Ozone even obstructs the pores on plants' leaves, resulting in as much as $3 billion in U.S. crop damage annually.
In Houston, this ozone problem isn't limited to within the Loop or along the Ship Channel—unhealthy smog levels were reported across Harris, Brazoria, Galveston, and Montgomery counties this time around. Basically, regardless of whether you're strolling through River Oaks or clocking in at the refinery this weekend, you're gulping down a colorless, odorless poison.
Yet for all the well-documented public health impacts, authorities have been ineffective at limiting the tailpipe exhaust and industrial emissions at the root of the ozone issue. Smog forms by the reaction of sunlight and chemicals, both of which Houston has in spades, but a Texas Tribune investigation found the TCEQ largely disinterested in levying fines on illegal air pollution; in the past, the agency's former chief toxicologist dismissed ozone as a health hazard.
And while the EPA recently set a three-year goal for Houston to meet new limits on smog—a move that would involve significant changes in regulation and enforcement—environmental watchdogs including the Environmental Defense Fund say little action has been taken. According to the American Lung Association, the city actually rose from the 12th most ozone-polluted to 11th in 2018 (which is, to be fair, a far cry from 1999, the year Houston was conferred "gagging rights" for its place at the top of the list).
A glimmer of hope appeared today as Andrew Wheeler, the acting EPA administrator, reversed a loophole for "super-polluting" trucks, but it's hard to cheer the effort when reminded of departed chief Scott Pruitt's regulatory rollbacks that included the repeal of the Obama administration's Clean Power Plan, which had been intended to limit emissions from power plants across the country since these facilities are responsible for more than a third of U.S. emissions. Another former EPA administrator warns that Wheeler might be even worse than Pruitt for air quality due to his old lobbyist ties and general history of being supportive of less regulation for industrial plants, among other planet-killing areas.
In the meantime, the cars keep driving, and the smokestacks keep belching, and are likely to continue doing so as we roll into the weekend. Just don't breathe too deep, folks!