As wildfires expand, ozone pollution in southern Nevada is also increasing

Clark County is experiencing increasing ozone pollution after nearly a decade of decline, according to county data.

In the first half of 2021, Clark County reported 11 days when ozone levels exceeded the Environmental Protection Agency’s health standard of 70 parts per billion, up from five days during the same period in 2020 and two in 2019. , according to the Clark County Department of Environmental Air Quality and Sustainability. The highest ozone reading for the county so far this year was 75 parts per billion over an eight-hour period near Mountain’s Edge.

In 2012, Clark County experienced 43 days when ozone levels exceeded EPA health standards, but thanks to stricter emissions standards and more fuel-efficient cars, pollution from ozone has declined steadily over the years, dropping to a minimum of three days of excess ozone in 2019.

However, this trend has reversed in recent years, largely due to the increase in wildfires in the West and the resulting ground-level ozone.

Ozone occurs naturally in the upper atmosphere, but when produced at ground level, it can worsen chronic respiratory conditions like asthma and damage cells’ ability to fight respiratory infections, according to the EPA. .

“Smoke from forest fires, locally produced ozone and the transport of pollutants have all been factors in exceedance these days, so far,” said Paul Fransioli, senior air quality specialist for the count. “It’s been a mix of at least two of those three elements in our overtaking this year.”

The wildfire season in the West begins earlier and ends later each year, fueled by long-term drought and climate change, which have contributed to air quality problems year after year.

Wildfires in the southwest have also been prevalent in four of the past five summers, including 2021, and with more wildfires there have been more days with excessive ozone pollution .

“In July, many days of excess ozone were influenced by smoke from forest fires,” DES spokesman Kevin MacDonald said.

In 2018, wildfires in northern California resulted in 35 days of ozone levels exceeding the EPA standard in southern Nevada. Although these wildfires do not originate in southern Nevada, the wind often carries ozone pollution and smoke around the state.

“Ozone from California carries to our area and it settles here,” MacDonald said.

This year’s California wildfires started earlier than in previous years and the largest wildfire on record in California continued for almost three weeks and shows little sign of slowing down.

It is difficult to predict whether the second half of the year will result in excess ozone pollution greater than in previous years due to the various factors that contribute to ozone, including weather conditions and forest fires. However, data shows that high ozone pollution resulting from forest fires in the first half of the year may mean a longer forest fire season, resulting in continued high ozone pollution. during the second half of the year, as Nevada saw in 2018.

“These fires in northern California are still ongoing,” Fransioli said. “It’s a little unpredictable how bad the fires will be and what kind of weather conditions will bring that smoke where. I wish we had a crystal ball.

Nevada is also grappling with the remains of the Tamarack fire south of Gardenville that burned more than 68,000 acres and destroyed or damaged more than a dozen structures.

“We’re so used to seeing foggy mountains there that it’s not even an exception anymore,” said Fransioli. “There’s no direct forest fire plume where you can’t see the mountains, but it’s a background bubble.”

Ozone is formed when sunlight cooks up chemical gases like nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds that are emitted from vehicles, power plants, and forest fires.

The risk of ozone formation is greatest on sunny days with low airflow, making dry southern Nevada an ideal petri dish. Stagnant weather conditions and the topographical structure of the Las Vegas Valley help trap these pollutants, causing levels to rise.

“One of the reasons ozone is a challenge here is because of our geography, topography and climate,” MacDonald said. “Southern Nevada is becoming a perfect oven for baking ozone.”

And like the experiences of southern Nevada no more heatwave and longer periods of triple-digit temperatures, the risk of ozone will only increase.

Vehicle emissions are the leading cause of air pollution in southern Nevada, but record high temperatures are also contributing to increasing ozone creation, according to the county. Three of the previous five years were the hottest on record for Las Vegas.

To limit exposure to the highest ozone levels in summer, residents at risk, such as the very old and the very young, should avoid going outside.

Scientists have suggested that long-term exposure to ozone appears to increase the risk of dying from heart and lung disease. Other research found that people living in areas with high ozone pollution are more likely to develop acute respiratory distress syndrome, a serious condition where the lungs fill with fluid. Recent studies have also linked smoke from forest fires to a significant increase in the cases of COVID-19 in Nevada.

President Joe Biden recently met with state governors in the West and Midwest to examine how federal intervention can best help states deal with wildfires.

MacDonald said he would like to see similar regional cooperation between states and government agencies in an effort to find solutions to growing air quality problems resulting from excess ozone and wildfires.

“Wildfires are something that is becoming the new normal,” MacDonald said. “As these forest fires continue and more and more of us every year, we need to start thinking regionally about how we are going to deal with ozone and forest fires. “

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