Air-quality dispatch: High ozone levels set doctors’ phones ringing

Air-quality dispatch: High ozone levels set doctors’ phones ringing

 
As a doctor, it doesn’t take long to learn who in our society are most susceptible to illness from environmental conditions. Along Colorado’s Front Range, our summers bring incredibly sunny days that are becoming hotter and drier. Many Coloradans are able to seek relief inside. But for others, summer in the Centennial State can cause a health crisis.  Our sunny, warm and dry climate, when blighted with pollution from oil and gas operations and other sources, forms a sick stew of ozone or smog.

As ozone levels rise to high-alert days — there were over 32 in the summer of 2013 alone – phones start ringing in doctors’ offices from Colorado Springs to Greeley. “Hard of breath.” “Feels like a weight is on my chest.” “I’m working so hard but just can’t get enough air.” These are the complaints physicians hear over and over again each summer. Elderly Coloradans have an especially tough time. Veterans and native lifelong residents also tend to be most vulnerable to the negative effects of poor air quality.

Unfortunately, kids are another vulnerable population. Children are hit with the worst symptoms on long hot summer days that otherwise would be perfect for outdoor play and exercise. There is something especially heartbreaking about seeing a child having difficulty breathing. “My son’s lips are blue,” one frantic mom tells her pediatrician “She’s breathing so hard I can see her ribs in her chest,” says another.

The fact is that air pollution in Colorado is a serious problem. Governor John Hickenlooper has said he wants Colorado to be the healthiest state. That’s why many Coloradans were encouraged when he recently proposed important new safeguards to address pollution from oil and gas operations.  

Colorado recently has experienced a huge surge in oil-and-gas drilling sites as well as facilities that process natural oil and gas for the marketplace. These facilities leak hazardous chemicals that mix in the air and form ground-level ozone.  They also release raw methane gas that, if left uncaptured, becomes a potent greenhouse gas that’s 80 times more powerful than carbon dioxide.

The proposed protections apply common sense measures — encouraging companies to use existing technologies to plug the leaks spewing these toxic pollutants. Then, just like medical check-ups, oil and gas operators will need to follow up with inspection plans to make sure their leaks stay plugged.

In the long run, these simple steps are preventative medicine for the health of our air and communities.  The human cost of oil-and-gas production pollution is real. The impact of ground-level ozone on our health is well documented. Ozone can cause acute respiratory conditions such as shortness of breath and asthma attacks, and even premature death. The most recent review of the science warns that ozone likely causes cardiovascular damage and may also harm the central nervous system.  

These medical conditions have ripple effects in our society that include spikes in emergency room visits, hospital admissions and medical bills.  In Colorado, there were more than 4,300 hospital admissions for asthma in 2011, with an average charge of more than $19,600 for each stay. The extra sick days take children and parents away from school and diminish everyone’s productivity. While not all cases stem from dirty air, ozone and air pollution clearly aren’t healthy for Coloradans. 

Colorado’s Front Range pollution problems are complex. But the proposed clean-air protections will help. We know that the oil-and-gas industry benefits our economy and that natural gas can be a cleaner-burning fuel. We just need to make sure that the industry is taking safeguards and plugging its leaks.

This week, Governor Hickenlooper and the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission have an opportunity to pass protections to clean up our air.  We owe clean air to our grandparents. We owe it to the parents who have come to dread the summer heat that makes their children wheeze. And we owe it to our kids and their kids so they can grow up and thrive breathing clean Rocky Mountain air.

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About the Author

Anthony Gerber

Dr. Anthony Gerber is an associate professor of medicine at National Jewish Health, where he practices as a pulmonologist. Dr. Gerber also holds a Ph.D. in pathology, and leads an active researches program that investigates mechanisms of inflammation in obstructive lung disease.

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