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DIY fix for ozone possible, group says

Ozone season — those hot, stagnant summer days of hyper-charged air that burn the lungs and can lead to disease and death — has begun on a sour note in Denton.

State environmental officials promised their latest plan would clean up North Texas air. As of this month, ozone levels went high enough to call the plan a failure. And, with at least five months to go in the season, Denton's ozone average — already the highest in the region and second-highest in the state — is likely to climb higher before the failure becomes official.

Meanwhile, children and adults continue to suffer. For example, North Texas children develop asthma at a greater rate than children elsewhere in Texas and the nation. When asthma sends a child or adult to the emergency room, taxpayers are more likely than not to pay the bill through Medicaid, according to a new report from the Texas Department of State Health Services.

Local activists are gathering at the end of this month to learn more about what they can do to help clean the air.

Jim Schermbeck, director of Downwinders at Risk, a local nonprofit that advocates for clean-air policies, said new and affordable capabilities with air quality sensing and computing could help.

"It's a DIY approach," Schermbeck said.

About ozone

Ground-level ozone gets made in sunlight when combustion sources (in North Texas, that comes from vehicle engines, natural gas compressors and coal and cement plants) mix with volatile organic compounds (gasses from trees and plants, as well as oil and gas facilities).

Doctors understand ozone's effect on the lungs pretty well. Because ozone has three oxygen atoms, it's a superoxidant. Ozone burns the airways similar to the way sunlight burns skin. Healthy people might not feel the burn until ozone levels get high, but people with asthma and lung diseases often do.

Scientists believe that ozone levels below about 60 parts-per-billion are probably safe to breathe.

Some business leaders say that standard is too costly for the benefit it brings. For example, the cost of improvements needed to meet ever-stricter air quality regulations by coal-fired power plants invariably get passed on to consumer utility bills.

Currently, the three-year average of ozone levels in Denton stands at 78 ppb. On Thursday, the average was 80 ppb for the day. For an hour that day, ozone reached 87 ppb.

The region's progress toward average ozone levels that stay below 75 ppb, the current requirement of the federal Clean Air Act, has stalled.

Cleaning up the air

To comply with the Clean Air Act, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality set up monitors around the region to measure ozone. A state regulatory agency, the TCEQ is also in charge of coming up with plans to clean the air. 

For years, the agency has depended heavily on improvements made by the auto industry. Rather than add big, new strategies for coal plants, cement plants or the oil and gas industry, the state helped low-income people trade in their old cars or make repairs.

However, on Monday, Gov. Greg Abbott vetoed a budget item that has helped low-income car owners make repairs to keep their vehicles running clean.

Part of the Clean Air Act also calls on local communities to help with strategies for a clean air plan, if needed. New developments in computing and sensing technology have made real-time, community-level air quality monitoring possible, Schermbeck said.

"You don't have to wait until noon to see what the state's monitors recorded at 9 a.m.," he said.

His group has organized three panel discussions to share the latest information with interested residents in Dallas, Fort Worth and Denton.

Denton's panel discussion includes two researchers in a consortium that is building new community-level networks. David Lary, a physics professor at the University of Texas at Dallas, and Leslie Allsop, a doctoral candidate at the UNT Health Science Center in Fort Worth, will explain how the networks can work to improve air quality and community health.

The group has already developed pilot projects, Lary said.

"Our goal is to deploy them on a larger scale," he said.

For more information, visit the Downwinders website,

PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881. 

If You Go

What: Science and Socializing for Cleaner Air

When: 7 to 9 p.m., Wednesday, June 28

Where: The Greenhouse, 600 N. Locust St. in Denton

In the Know

Some people think their wheezing breaths or nagging coughs are "just allergies" or part of growing older. But the doctors at the American Lung Association warn that you should pay attention to minor symptoms which could be early signs of lung disease, since early detection could save your life. Make an appointment with your doctor if you have:

  • A cough that you have had for a month or longer

  • Shortness of breath that doesn't go away after exercising, or that comes after little or no exertion

  • Labored breathing (if you find it hard to breathe in out)

  • Mucus production that has lasted a month or longer

  • Noisy breathing or wheezing

  • Coughed up blood

  • Chronic chest pain that lasts a month or more, especially if it gets worse when you breathe in or cough