April 29 – May 3 is Air Quality Awareness Week (AQAW).  This year’s theme, “Check the AQI and Get Outside,” encourages us to learn about air quality by checking AirNow’s Air Quality Index (AQI) to find out the healthiest times for outdoor activities in your area. LSLA’s Environmental Justice Team recently caught up with EJ Attorney Colin Cox to talk about the importance of clean air for a safe and healthy environment and how to check the air quality in your area. We’re sharing helpful info on these topics in observance of AQAW this week.

What is the Air Quality Index (AQI)?

Published by the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) AirNow, the Air Quality Index  is a real-time air quality report and forecast that allows people to plan their outdoor activities, providing recommendations on who should avoid outdoor activities that day. Based on real-time data collected by Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), the AQI tracks ground-level ozone (O3) and particulate matter (PM), “the two most ubiquitous pollutants in urban areas,” said Cox.   Using a color-coded scale ranging from 0 (the best “Good” score) to 500 (the highest “Hazardous” score), the AQI provides an easy way to check on air quality in your area, including orange “Ozone Action Days” when outdoor air is unsafe for sensitive groups such as the elderly, children, and people with existing respiratory problems.  

Air Quality Index for Houston-Galveston-Brazoria region at 6pm, April 29, 2019

Ground-level ozone (smog) is caused when Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) emissions from automobile exhaust, petrochemical refineries and other sources react with sunlight in the atmosphere, creating ozone.  One of six criteria pollutants tracked by EPA as part of the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS), ground-level ozone can trigger asthma attacks, aggravates respiratory symptoms, causes reduced lung functioning, and contributes to heart disease and premature death.  Based on ground-level ozone levels over time in a given area, EPA determines whether or not that area is in attainment for the pollutant.  Cox explained that the Houston-Galveston-Brazoria area has been designated non-attainment for ozone ever since the NAAQS were established.  “If an area regularly violates the NAAQS established by the EPA under authority of the Clean Air Act, it is considered a non-attainment area, and the state must take steps to bring it into attainment,” said Cox, “This includes making it harder to get permits for new pollution.” 

Lone Star Legal Aid’s Environmental Justice Team represents low-income environmental justice communities throughout our service area who are fighting for clean air. The EJ Team advocates for communities and individuals by submitting public comments to TCEQ on air quality permits, engaging in administrative actions such as advocating for appropriate enforcement and fighting new air pollution caused by industrial expansion, suing polluters for illegal pollution or nuisance conditions, and providing community engagement and education on air quality issues such as the recent ITC Deer Park disaster.

If you have concerns about air quality in your community, please contact the EJ Team at: 713-652-3141 ext. 8108. 

To subscribe to LSLA’s EJ Newsletter, text EJUSTICE to 22828.

Please visit https://www.airnow.gov/airaware for more information about Air Quality Awareness Week.