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Air quality improving, but still not ideal

Population growth means residents need to do their part, experts say


There are some days, primarily in the summer months between May and September, when Coloradans should re-think partaking in vigorous exercise outside.

But that doesn’t mean the air quality here is so concerning that everybody should feel they need to move out of Denver, said Anthony Gerber, an associate professor of medicine at National Jewish Health.

“On the days when ozone is high, people should take it seriously,” he said. “We’re not where we need to be, but on most days, the air is safe.”

Loosely defined, ozone is a powerful respiratory irritant, commonly known as smog, which is formed by pollutants in the air that react in the presence of sunlight. It is one of the most complex pollutants we deal with, said Jeremy Neustifter, a planner with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

“Colorado has come a long way in improving air quality since the days of the notorious brown cloud,” Neustifter said, noting that progress has occurred despite the state’s rapidly increasing population and increasing energy demand.

Still, it’s something to pay attention to.

When to be aware of the air

The CDPHE issues an action alert when it is forecasted that ozone concentrations might be at or exceed orange level on the Air Quality Index, a colored-coded resource that demonstrates six levels of health concern. Orange is the third level, and it means the air is unhealthy for sensitive populations such as people with lung disease, including asthma, seniors, children and teenagers, and people of all ages who spend a lot of time being active outdoors.

For the 2017 calendar year, as of Sept. 20, the state recorded 39 action alert days. Of those, 29 days had ozone concentrations at an orange level.

Although progress is being made toward cleaner air nationwide, 125 million people in the U.S. still live in a community with poor air quality, said Paul Billings, national senior vice president of advocacy for the American Lung Association.

“Anyone can be harmed by air pollution,” Billings said. “There are far too many people breathing far too much air pollution on far too many days.”

According to the American Lung Association’s 2017 State of the Air report, released in April, the Denver area experienced fewer unhealthy days of high ozone in this year’s report compared to years past. Still, Adams, Arapahoe, Douglas and Jefferson counties each received a failing grade of F and Denver County received a D.

However, Neustifter argues that although the report can be a useful resource to help people to better understand air quality more easily, the CDPHE has some concerns regarding the American Lung Association’s methodology for grading.

For example, he said, the vast majority of the days that counted against Colorado counties for the State of the Air report’s grading system were orange, the level considered unhealthy for sensitive populations. The report cites few days in Colorado where ozone concentrations were red, the level above orange when the air quality is considered unhealthy for everyone and all exposed may experience health effects, Neustifter added.

Gains and losses

Colorado, in general, has made some major gains with cleaning up the air. For example, cars are getting cleaner, Gerber said. But, even though they’re cleaner, the Front Range population is growing and there are more on the roads, meaning more pollutants entering the air.

But, he added, the problem is multipronged — there’s not just one contributor that can be blamed for poor air quality.

“As the Front Range grows, we need to be vigilant on helping the problem,” Gerber said, “rather than making it worse. That responsibility should be shared by everyone, from individuals to corporations.”

One factor holding back Colorado’s progress in cleaning air — as compared to other states — is increased oil and gas extraction, Billings said.

Agencies such as Denver’s Department of Environmental Health are aware of this. In fact, a bulk of the department’s workload includes figuring out how to reduce ozone, said Gregg Thomas, environmental director in the City and County of Denver’s Department of Environmental Health.

Currently, the department is working on a policy that could help to reduce emissions in the oil and gas industry, Thomas said.

But it’s important for the general public to understand it also can help improve air quality on a daily basis by doing little things, such as using public transportation more often, Thomas said.

“When there’s a million of us doing it, we can make an impact,” Thomas said. “Even if you don’t think it’s a lot, that collective impact can make a difference.”


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