Colorado’s bad air quality is a worsening issue. Emissions from cars, power plants, and oil/gas coupled with smoke from increasingly worse wildfires resulted in a summer with 65 Ozone alerts and earned Denver the #1 worst air quality in the world on multiple days. Although the smoke was very visible, it’s actually what you can’t see that is causing the biggest problem – ozone.
Pollution + Heat & Sun = Ozone.
When pollution mixes with heat and sunlight, a chemical reaction creates ozone – which is unhealthy to breathe.
Ground-level ozone pollution is the main driver of Colorado’s poor air quality, and is the result of emissions from cars, power plants, and oil/gas wells. A few of the largest polluters in Colorado include the Comanche 3, Craig, and Pawnee power plants as well as the tens of thousands of oil/gas wells, mostly along the Northern Front Range.
Meanwhile, the pollution you can see – the stuff that blocked the view of the mountains for most of the summer – is made up of particulate pollution, tiny physical particles that come from sources like wildfires, exhaust from vehicles, or construction sites.
Both ground level ozone and particulate pollution have real health effects. You probably felt some of the short term effects this summer: irritated eyes and throat, headaches, fatigue, and sometimes difficulty breathing. Longterm effects are even more serious: increased risk of lung disease, cancer and other illness… even premature death.
Solving this problem isn’t easy. We have to take multiple different approaches all at once if we want to make progress. We’ve gotten off to a good start over the past few years, but it’s not nearly enough:
All of that work, and still we have hazy skies and ozone alerts. There’s a lot more to do.
From cutting emissions to creating opportunities for cleaner lifestyles, there are many more ways for us to clean up our air and our environment. Here’s what’s top of mind for me:
- Electrify … everything!
- Requiring new construction to rely solely on electric energy and retrofitting old buildings to run on electricity will move us from outdated fossil fuel use to clean energy alternatives – drastically reducing overall emissions.
- Invest in transit
- Providing realistic alternatives to driving will get cars off the road, bringing down the huge amount of emissions caused by transportation.
- Further, we can invest in electric public transportation. Boulder already has a zero-emission school bus – and was the first district in Colorado to receive one!
- Hold polluters accountable
- It’s time to shut down coal and gas plants – some of the largest polluters in our state.
- And, we need to better enforce the laws we already have, especially on the oil and gas industry, automobiles, and industrial sites.
- Improve land use
- We need to start allowing for more dense housing and work to reduce sprawl so people don’t need to drive long distances to work or shop.
- Advance forest management
- Smoke from wildfires is a huge contributor to air pollution. Although we can’t control out-of-state wildfires in other Western states, in Colorado we can promote better forest management to decrease the likelihood of massive wildfires like we saw in 2020.
- Implement better science and increase transparency
- Yes, public officials tasked with cleaning up our air and enforcing the legislation listed above (and federal rules) need some improvement. Coloradans deserve to know what our officials are (and aren’t) doing to address this serious public health concern. Additionally, Colorado has some of the best atmospheric scientists in the world right in our backyard–we should have better data transfer and collaboration with them. And then we should fund our air division at CDPHE (our air regulators) to be able to better implement and enforce stricter regulations.
Have other ideas? Share them with me here.
Find the most up to date air quality information for your area here.
Find 10 tips to protect yourself from poor air quality here.
Find information about how air purifiers can help with air pollution in your home here.
Find information about Colorado’s Air Quality Control Commission here.