While Nebraska does not yet have severe air quality issues, increasing levels of ozone have put us in an uncertain situation. The Clean Air Act requires the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) to set National Ambient Air Quality Standards, which measure the levels of six pollutants, including ozone. This Act has set acceptable standards for ozone quantity at 75 parts per billion.

In the last week, Omaha reached 73 on certain days, and is projected to reach 75 as the heat continues.

“It is important that residents realize that we need to avoid violating the EPA Standards,” said Tim Burns, Air Quality Supervisor with the Omaha Air Quality Control Division. “We have had a few high days, but we have not reached nonattainment as of yet.”

Nonattainment is defined as a violation of EPA threshold for National Ambient Air Quality Standards, and if Omaha reaches these levels, the state would need to implement some costly measures to bring levels back down. “If we reach that point, we would have to take measures that would affect all taxpayers. An example is increased vehicle checks and standards tests to make sure emission levels are being met.”

This summer, Omaha commuters will have a new incentive to ride the bus. The Metropolitan Area Planning Agency (MAPA) is teaming up with the Douglas County Health Department to promote a campaign to educate residents on how to decrease their ozone impact.

“The Ozone Awareness Campaign is an attempt to encourage people to take small steps to offset the hazards of ground-level ozone,” said MAPA Executive Director Greg Youell. “Most people do not consider Omaha to have air quality issues. We are not as bad as other cities, but we all need to take action to keep ozone at bay on high level days.”

High-level ozone is important for regulating the Earth’s atmosphere and for ultraviolet ray protection. However, ground-level ozone can be hazardous to our health.

A product of VOC’s (volatile organic compounds) and NOx (nitrogen oxides), ground-level ozone is created when these two compounds combine and react during hot weather, particularly on days with little to no wind. The biggest culprits of ground-level ozone include electrical and industrial facilities, and vehicle emissions.

“Ozone is very irritating to the lungs, especially people with chronic lung problems such as cystic fibrosis,” said Dr. Susanna Von Essen, MD and pulmonologist at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. “Ozone react with proteins and lipids in the cells. Once damaged, they actually damage other cells around them. This can result in lung damage, with symptoms ranging from wheezing to low lung function.”

Ozone can also induce asthma and increase the frequency of respiratory infections. National trends are worrisome as well. “5 percent of the national adult population has COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease), and asthma affects between 8-20 percent in certain groups of children,” said Dr. Von Essen.

The American Lung Association released a 2013 “State of the Air” report card with Douglas County rated on ozone and particle pollution. Particle Pollution was calculated on both a 24 hour period (short term) and annually. While Douglas County received good marks on ozone so far this year, our short term particle pollution was rated a “C.” Grades are calculated using by assigning weights to the days when air pollution levels reach higher ranges. Omaha is hovering near high levels, meaning every resident needs to take part in reducing their contribution to ground-level ozone.

The Ozone Awareness Campaign is helping people take small steps to change the way they commute by providing three levels of action: Awareness, Action and Alert.

Awareness days are throughout the season of potentially high ozone levels, the months of April through October. During high level days, the Douglas County Health Department will issue a 24 hour warning. “Action functions the same way as a tornado warning,” said Youell. “When levels are high and potentially hazardous, we will encourage people to take steps to protect their safety. These include taking public transportation, carpooling, or waiting to travel until the cooler hours of the day.”

An Alert is issued when levels are so high that the health of all can be impacted. “As soon as we get to that Alert level, we want people to take all these steps and take action in reducing their impact.”

MAPA has also received a Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Grant (CMAQ) to reduce the costs of the campaign and provide more incentive to engage the public. Awarded to MAPA through the Federal Highway Administration, this grant is being used to reduce bus fares for a week during each of the three months of the campaign. “This is the first year we have received this grant,” said Youell. “In the first month we had an 18 percent increase in ridership, over 12,000 rides. We are thrilled the public had responded so well, and hopefully it will motivate people to change the way they commute. If you have never ridden the bus before, now is a great time to give it a second look.”

The campaign website, called “Little Steps. Big Impact,” provides tips for everyday ozone reduction, as well as resources for learning more about ozone impact. Tips include carpooling, taking the public transit, avoiding outdoor activity during the peak hours of 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., and being more aware of the number of trips we take in our vehicles. 

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