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Out of breath

Growing ozone pollution is threatening peoples health in the Pikes Peak region. Is anyone paying attention?


  • Bruce Elliott

Wayne Carmack faces an invisible foe.

He can't see it or smell it. But when it hits him, he can feel it in his lungs. He struggles to breathe. If he's outside, he seeks refuge indoors right away and puffs on an inhaler.

Carmack's enemy is ozone, an air pollutant that can reach unhealthy levels on summer days in Colorado Springs. Eleven years ago, the retired electrician and Army veteran was diagnosed with emphysema, the result of smoking cigarettes for 45 years.

The terminal disease, which is slowly destroying the air sacs in his lungs, makes the 70-year-old Carmack especially sensitive to ozone. In the stratosphere, miles above the earth, ozone is a naturally occurring chemical that protects us from the sun's ultraviolet rays. But at ground level, it's a powerful lung irritant that harms humans, plants and animals.

Ground-level ozone forms when fumes from a variety of sources, such as gasoline-powered lawn mowers, household paints and solvents, cars, trucks, industry and oil and gas wells, react with other pollutants in sunlight. It's most likely to form on hot, clear summer days when the air is stagnant.

When that happens, Carmack's damaged lungs strain even more than usual to expel the carbon dioxide produced by breathing, which means they can't take in new air.

"It scared me some at first, but now I've gotten used to it," Carmack says of his struggle to breathe. "I know someday I'll die from it."

Human activities are boosting ground-level ozone across the globe, putting Carmack and millions of others with respiratory illnesses such as emphysema and asthma at increased risk of sickness or premature death. And mounting evidence shows ozone levels already present in many American cities can harm not only those who already are ill, but also otherwise healthy people.

In fast-growing Colorado Springs, ozone concentrations have been creeping up steadily, threatening to spoil the city's long-cherished status as a clean-air haven.

In examining the growing local problem, the Independent found several worrisome factors:

Ozone levels in the Pikes Peak area are inching up toward a regulatory health limit set by the federal government. If trends continue, they will catch up with those in the Denver area and violate the health standard within just five years. If that happens, local governments and businesses will be burdened with meeting expensive and cumbersome federal mandates to clean up the air, or otherwise face the loss of millions of dollars in federal highway funding.

While state health officials predict that ozone concentrations in the Springs will begin to drop in the next couple of years, some experts say the prediction is overly optimistic. Meanwhile, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is considering lowering the federal ozone standard, which could instantly put the Springs over the limit. At the same time, rising ground-level ozone worldwide could threaten to undo any local gains.

Although local ozone isn't yet at the level that the federal government considers dangerous, it likely already is making area residents sick and shortening lives. The average summertime concentration already exceeds the level deemed unhealthy by the state of California, and an analysis by the Independent suggests spikes in patient treatment for respiratory problems at area hospitals could be linked to ozone.

The problem is drawing little attention from government officials, and the city of Colorado Springs and El Paso County have few programs in place aimed specifically at curbing ozone.

"It's not on anybody's radar screen," says Richard Skorman, a member of the Colorado Springs City Council.

Tens of thousands at risk

A 50-foot plastic tube snakes through Carmack's living room in central Colorado Springs, with Carmack at one end and an oxygen machine at the other. He's hooked up to the machine 24 hours a day. Once every two or three hours, he puffs on one of the four different prescribed inhalers that he keeps in a plastic bag.

Thanks to the inhalers and a portable oxygen tank, Carmack can go just about anywhere and do just about anything he wants.

"I've gotten more inhalers than you can shake a stick at," says Carmack, his speech occasionally punctuated by muffled coughs.

Carmack is one of about 5,000 people in El Paso County who are at risk from ozone due to emphysema, according to the American Lung Association. An estimated 33,000 local adults and 13,000 children with asthma, and 15,000 people with chronic bronchitis, also may be sensitive to ozone.

As recently as this year, the Lung Association gave El Paso County an "A" grade for air quality. But the growing ozone levels in the Springs -- whose clean air played a major role in the city's early history as a rehabilitation center for people with tuberculosis -- is threatening to knock the area down a few grades.

Just seven years ago, the official summertime ozone level in the Springs was 59 parts per billion, well below the level of 85 parts per billion that would trigger a federal violation. The concentration has increased steadily since and reached 75 this year, up from 73 last year. (One part per billion has been compared to one drop of water in a backyard swimming pool.)

Because actual ozone levels fluctuate significantly from hour to hour and day to day, health officials use a complicated averaging formula to decide the official level.

Two years ago, the Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments, which coordinates transportation planning and air quality monitoring in the region, predicted the area could be in violation of the federal standard as soon as 2007.

Jana Milford, a senior scientist at the Boulder office of the organization Environmental Defense, calls the local trend "disturbing."

"People really should be paying attention," she says.

A 2003 study by Colorado's state health department, however, predicted ozone levels across the Front Range will fall by 2007, bringing down the Springs' level to around 70 parts per billion.

Tightened federal restrictions on tailpipe emissions for new cars and trucks should cause this drop, says Mike Silverstein, an air pollution official at the health department.

"Our thoughts are, we're gonna be OK," Silverstein says.

In the greater Denver area, where three-year average ozone levels reached as high as 87 parts per billion two years ago, concentrations already have begun to fall and now are right around 80 parts per billion, he notes.

That hasn't been the case in the Pikes Peak region. Still, the area's current level is "so far below the standard, relatively speaking, that [it] is not a concerning value," Silverstein says.

Spewing ozone-forming fumes

Rich Muzzy, head air quality planner at the Council of Governments, is less confident about the area's future.

Even though the state study made predictions specifically for Colorado Springs, its main focus was the Denver area, Muzzy points out. He believes the study's findings could be off by as much as 20 percent.

Wayne Carmack - BRUCE ELLIOTT
  • Bruce Elliott
  • Wayne Carmack

"The modeling was done for the Denver region, but Colorado Springs is in a different airshed," Muzzy says.

No study has been done to zero in specifically on the Pikes Peak region. Such a study would be expensive, Muzzy says.

As for the prediction that levels will drop to 70 parts per billion two years from now, he says, "I doubt concentrations will be that low."

Silverstein, on the other hand, stands by the state's findings.

"We have specific data that's applicable across Colorado," he says. "We think we did a good job."

Experts, meanwhile, say studies predicting future ozone levels tend to be unreliable.

"I think they need to be taken with a lot of skepticism," says David Parrish, a researcher at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Boulder. "In some respects, the results that come out are overly optimistic."

While cleaner new vehicles are helping curb air-pollution levels in general, "ozone, in particular, has not decreased as much as the models predicted they would," Parrish says.

And some observers fret that the explosive population growth along the Front Range could cancel out the gains made from cleaner cars.

El Paso County's population, now at about 562,000, is expected to top 600,000 by 2010, and 800,000 by 2030.

Meanwhile, as Colorado Springs continues to sprawl, residents travel longer distances. Over the next 40 years, the city plans to add up to 75,000 new households as Banning Lewis Ranch -- an area on the city's east side that's one-and-a-half times the size of Manhattan -- is converted from prairie to suburbia.

The Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments projects that the total number of miles driven by area residents annually will skyrocket from 11 million in 2000 to 13.1 million in 2010, and to 18.9 million in 2030.

Local roads won't keep pace with the demand. The Council of Governments' statistics show that while vehicle miles traveled will jump 72 percent between 2000 and 2030, the number of local "lane miles" will grow by just 9 percent.

That will lead to more ozone-boosting traffic jams; idling vehicles spew significant amounts of ozone-forming fumes.

Silverstein says all these factors were included in the state's ozone study, but others worry.

"Cars are cleaner," says Stacey Simms, an air quality specialist at the American Lung Association's Denver office. "But there are gonna be a lot more cars."

At the mercy of Asia

Even if the Front Range manages to reduce ozone-forming emissions, the well-being of local residents still could be at the mercy of what happens in places as far away as Asia.

Ozone is transported by the wind across oceans and continents. A portion of the concentrations measured locally on any given day is made up of "background" levels that exist regardless of local emissions. Those concentrations seem to be growing, due in part to rapid industrialization and modernization in China and Southeast Asia.

If current trends continue, background levels could reach a point where "globally, the (U.S.) standard is going to be real close to being overshot," warns Parrish. Trying to keep local communities below the limit "will be a constant struggle," he predicts.

At the same time, the EPA is considering making its standard stricter. A host of recent scientific studies suggest the standard doesn't do enough to protect human health.

"Ozone is more dangerous than we thought, and it's shortening lives at levels we already have in our communities," says Janice Nolen, the Lung Association's director of national policy.

Within the past year, researchers working on four separate studies all found a connection between ozone increases and human death rates, even at levels below 80 parts per billion.

Scientists at Yale and Johns Hopkins universities examined ozone levels and daily mortality rates in the 95 largest U.S. cities, home to about 40 percent of all Americans. Reviewing 14 years' worth of data, they found that each time ozone levels jumped by 10 parts per billion over the course of a week, mortality in the following days increased by an average of one-half of 1 percent.

In Colorado Springs, the increase was almost double that.

Most of those who died probably already suffered from lung or heart problems, but had fatal episodes triggered by ozone spikes.

The Yale and Johns Hopkins study's lead author, Michelle Bell, says it's hard to calculate how many deaths may be caused by ozone increases in Colorado Springs. Nationwide, however, she and her colleagues estimated that in the short term alone, a one-third reduction in ozone could save nearly 4,000 lives each year.

"The link between ozone and mortality was not known the last time the EPA set the standard," Bell says in an interview. "We now have a link between this air pollutant and death."

A study in California found that children who grow up in areas with high concentrations of nitrogen oxide -- one of the two main components of ozone -- wind up with decreased lung function, making them more susceptible to respiratory disease. Researchers also have found that in areas with high ozone, children who exercise a lot outdoors are more likely to develop asthma.

The American Academy of Pediatrics last year declared that the existing federal health standard "may not adequately protect children."

Even healthy adults can be affected. People who exercise outdoors on peak ozone days may feel burning in the lungs, shortness of breath, coughing, stinging in the eyes, or chest pains when they take deep breaths.

In response to the recent health studies, the state of California this year set a limit for ozone of 70 parts per billion, lower than the federal standard.

Colorado officials also recognize that health problems can be triggered at lower levels. On summer days when concentrations are expected to reach 75 parts per billion, the state health department issues "ozone action alerts" for the Front Range. The alerts warn people who are "unusually sensitive" mainly those with existing lung problems, such as Carmack to avoid prolonged outdoor exertion.

The EPA is reviewing the recent health studies and is scheduled to decide within the next two years whether to lower its ozone limit. If the standard is tightened, the Colorado Springs area immediately could find itself out of compliance.

Spikes in ozone, hospital visits

Mike McCarthy, an air quallity official with El Paso - Countys health department, checks the ozone monitor - at the U.S. Air Force Academy. - BRUCE ELLIOTT
  • Bruce Elliott
  • Mike McCarthy, an air quallity official with El Paso Countys health department, checks the ozone monitor at the U.S. Air Force Academy.

Despite the scientific evidence of ozone's harmful effects, several area physicians interviewed for this story say they haven't noticed any obvious connection between ozone spikes and health problems.

Dr. Nathan Rabinovitch, a pediatric allergist and immunologist at Denver's National Jewish Medical and Research Center -- known as one of the nation's best hospitals for respiratory care -- says he has no evidence that ozone triggers respiratory problems in his patients.

"As a physician, I don't hear this from the kids," he says.

"We certainly see more respiratory problems on high pollution days," says Dr. David Wolf, medical director of urgent care at Memorial Hospital in the Springs. But it's uncertain whether ozone plays a role, he says.

Meanwhile, an analysis by the Independent found that this summer, whenever daily maximum one-hour ozone readings spiked in Colorado Springs, doctors' visits and hospital admissions for respiratory problems usually jumped, too.

When peak ozone concentrations stayed below 65 parts per billion, a combined average of 12 patients sought treatment for respiratory problems at Memorial or Penrose-St. Francis hospitals, on either the same day or the following day.

When the ozone concentrations spiked above 85 parts per billion, the average number of patients over a two-day period increased to 17. And on the two occasions when readings exceeded 95 parts per billion, the average number of patients over two days was 22.

The Independent looked at patient visits over two-day periods because people often wait a day to see a doctor when they feel sick.

"I think it's a strong indicator of what's going on," commented Scott Matthews, director of the Colorado Asthma Coalition, an advocacy group, when told about the findings.

The analysis isn't scientific, and the increases in lung problems could be explained by factors other than ozone. However, the findings seem to align with scientific studies conducted elsewhere.

For instance, the EPA found in 1997 that between 10 and 20 percent of all summertime hospital visits for lung problems in the Northeast were associated with ozone. Other studies have tied ozone pollution to increases in asthma-related school absenteeism. Citing such findings, the American Academy of Pediatrics has warned that there is a "compelling need" to address air pollution, including high ozone levels, nationwide.

No-drive days

Though human health concerns are the basic reason why ozone is regulated, increased sickness and death are not the only consequences Colorado Springs could suffer if the area falls out of compliance with the federal standard.

Once the federal government declares an area to be out of compliance, it imposes a host of mandates to clean up the air. If local governments don't act, the feds can withhold millions of dollars in highway funding.

"We would lose a lot of federal funding, and we'd be required to spend a lot of money," says Skorman, the Colorado Springs city councilman, who also chairs the Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments.

When air quality officials in the Denver area realized in 2002 that they were on the verge of violating the standard, they struck a voluntary agreement with the EPA to ensure the area would meet the standard by 2007.

As part of the deal, governments in the seven-county Denver area agreed to require the sale of lower-polluting gasoline at pumps, and to tighten numerous controls on industrial sources, including oil and gas wells.

In Los Angeles, which long had the nation's worst ozone problem, the EPA at one point threatened to impose gasoline rationing and "no-drive days."

In addition to the federal mandates, being declared a "dirty-air" city can have other economic consequences, Skorman notes. "We depend so heavily on tourism our mountains, our views, our clean air."

Scott Nester, an air quality official in California's San Joaquin Valley -- which is battling one of the nation's worst ozone problems, with levels as high as 110 parts per billion -- suggests Colorado Springs might want to take action before it incurs a federal violation.

"The common-sense thing to do would be to try to head it off before you get into that situation," Nester advises.

In practice, few communities act to reduce ozone unless they're forced to. But local governments can do a lot on their own, Nester points out. "There are basic things that could be done for any area ... that are not tremendously expensive."

In Fort Collins, where ozone levels are slightly lower, officials have kicked off several voluntary programs to fight ozone.

The city offers a rebate to people who trade in their old, gasoline-powered lawn mowers for electric ones. A single gasoline-powered mower can emit more ozone-forming fumes than numerous cars combined.

Working with local businesses, the city also has offered to test the gas caps on employees' vehicles and replace leaky caps for free, to stop fumes from escaping.

The programs may have only a small impact on total ozone levels, says Lucinda Smith, an environmental planner for the city. However, Smith says she believes "it's important to achieve all levels of reduction possible."

In Boulder, a clean air consortium involving local government, the University of Colorado and local businesses organizes an annual "clean air contest," giving away prizes to people who use alternative transportation on peak ozone days. Boulder County also has a lawn mower rebate program.

Both Fort Collins and Boulder County are part of the greater Denver region that's on the verge of being declared out of compliance, boosting their motivation to act. Still, these measures are voluntary.

Meanwhile, the Regional Air Quality Commission, a Denver-area agency, is in the midst of a three-year awareness and outreach campaign to encourage and help people reduce ozone, funded by a $1 million federal grant. The campaign includes an informational Web site, advertising, surveys, free car-care clinics, lawn mower and gas-can exchange programs, and gas-cap testing programs.

No current programs

El Paso County and Colorado Springs, on the other hand, have virtually no voluntary measures directly targeting ozone.

The Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments produces some educational materials on how area residents can help limit ozone for example, by keeping their cars tuned up, or by filling their gas tanks at night, since ozone forms in sunlight. The agency would like to do more if funding were available, says Muzzy, the agency's air quality manager.

The El Paso County Department of Health and Environment carries out some ozone-control measures under contract with the state health department, such as maintaining the county's two ozone-monitoring stations, at the U.S. Air Force Academy and in Manitou Springs, and inspecting area businesses that are subject to state ozone regulations.

The city of Colorado Springs currently has no air quality program, no air quality budget and no voluntary measures specifically targeting ozone, though many of its efforts to combat congestion also help curb the pollutant.

The city's traffic division is trying to improve the timing of traffic lights to reduce idling, says Mary Scott, a city spokeswoman. The city also operates electric buses downtown and has a program to promote carpooling. Bus service recently has been expanded, and the city now has some low-polluting hybrid vehicles in its municipal fleet.

This summer, whenever ozone levels in the Pikes Peak - region spiked, the number of people seeking medical - care for respiratory problems usually jumped on the - same day or the following day. The chart above shows - ozone readings and patient visits during the two-week - period of July 10-23, which saw some of the areas - highest ozone readings ever. The red line shows - maximum one-hour ozone levels at the U.S. Air Force - Academy; the blue line shows the combined totals of - people who received medical care for respiratory - symptoms at Memorial and Penrose-St. Francis - hospitals. - SOURCES: Colorado Department of Public Health and - Environment, Memorial Hospital, Penrose-St. Francis - Health Services.
  • This summer, whenever ozone levels in the Pikes Peak region spiked, the number of people seeking medical care for respiratory problems usually jumped on the same day or the following day. The chart above shows ozone readings and patient visits during the two-week period of July 10-23, which saw some of the areas highest ozone readings ever. The red line shows maximum one-hour ozone levels at the U.S. Air Force Academy; the blue line shows the combined totals of people who received medical care for respiratory symptoms at Memorial and Penrose-St. Francis hospitals. SOURCES: Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, Memorial Hospital, Penrose-St. Francis Health Services.

In the long run, however, the key to curbing ozone emissions is community planning, says Nester, the San Joaquin Valley air pollution official.

Reducing commute times through smart land use and transportation planning, he says, "is probably the biggest issue."

The American Academy of Pediatrics agrees, calling urban planning and smart growth "imperative" to protecting children's health.

Both the city of Colorado Springs and El Paso County have made some moves in recent years to control congestion and boost mass transit.

Dick Anderwald, who heads El Paso County's planning department, says a 1999 county plan calls for more "mixed-use" development, which is designed to reduce commuting and congestion by locating houses near places where people work and shop.

However, county planning staff, constantly inundated with new development proposals, have little time to work on such long-range issues, Anderwald says.

"I've got all my available resources going into day-to-day planning," he says. "At the present time, I don't think we give any consideration to the impact of growth on ozone."

City Planning Director Bill Healy notes that the city's comprehensive plan also calls for mixed-use developments. Developers have begun to take advantage of new zoning ordinances that encourage these kinds of neighborhoods.

But on a day-to-day basis, ozone is "not an issue" for city planners, Healy says.

Acting early

With so many variables and science still evolving, predicting what will happen to ozone levels, and figuring out where they ought to be, is difficult.

"Things could stabilize, things could go up, and things could go down," Muzzy says. "A lot of it is weather-dependent."

Perhaps, 50 years from now, everyone will be driving electric or fuel cell-powered cars and trucks, eliminating the main sources of ozone-forming chemicals.

El Paso County Commissioner Wayne Williams, who also is vice chairman of the Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments, advocates a wait-and-see approach before trying new ozone-control measures.

"If we don't meet standards, [then] it's something we have to look at," Williams says.

The COSMIX project to improve Interstate 25, and last year's passage of a referendum to create a Rural Transportation Authority that will help fund local road upgrades and expanded bus service, "will cut out significant congestion," helping combat ozone, Williams predicts.

Others say it makes more sense to act now.

Skorman says he'd like to see local measures such as ordinances against idling or smoking vehicles. It also needs to become more convenient for area residents to walk, bike or use mass transit, he says.

"We don't have a city that's pedestrian-friendly," Skorman says. And "right now, you can't hop on a bus to get somewhere quickly."

Skorman says he's called for action against air pollution in the past, but that other elected officials always tell him, "Government shouldn't be too overreaching."

"It's a hard case to make when people don't see this immediate threat," he laments.

Vickie Patton, an attorney for Environmental Defense, says Coloradans in general need to realize that ozone threatens the entire Front Range, not just Denver.

"The air quality monitoring data is irrefutable and is a crucial wake-up call for policy action across the Front Range, to address pollution levels that are being seen from Colorado Springs to Rocky Mountain National Park and Greeley," she says. "It directly refutes the myth that pollution levels are narrowly confined to the Denver urban area."

By making this realization and taking early action, she says, communities can "control their own destiny."

Substantially curbing ozone pollution in Colorado Springs might require government action, but citizens can do their part, as well. Here are some ways you can help:

On hot, sunny days:

Fill your gas tank in the evening, and stop when the pump clicks off -- don't top off the tank. Gasoline fumes, when exposed to sunlight, mix with other pollutants to form ozone.

Avoid idling your car when possible.

Walk to lunch and run errands in the evening.

Use gas-powered mowers and other lawn equipment after 5 p.m. When fueling the equipment, use a funnel to reduce gasoline spills.

Avoid painting or staining in the heat of the day.

Tightly cap solvents and keep them in a cool place.

Don't use lighter fluid to start your charcoal grill.

Year 'round:

Keep your car tuned up -- and your gas-powered lawn mower, as well.

Take advantage of off-season sales to replace your gas-powered lawn equipment with electric equipment, or to replace your charcoal grill with a gas grill.

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