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May 3, 2021

Boulder County Public Health marks Air Quality Awareness Week

Public urged to monitor air quality and take steps to protect their health

Boulder County, CO - Today marks the start of Air Quality Awareness Week. Boulder County Public Health (BCPH) encourages residents to learn about air quality and how they can protect their health on days with poor air quality.

2020 was a particularly bad year for air quality along the Front Range. A record-breaking wildfire season blanketed Boulder County in smoke for much of the summer and fall, while ozone levels regularly exceeded the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) National Ambient Air Quality Standard (NAAQS) for health with 43 ozone action day alerts issued. Due to the high ozone levels recorded during summer 2020, the area will be reclassified to “severe” nonattainment of the 2008 NAAQS in late 2021 or early 2022.

“We often think of the Rocky Mountains as a crisp, clean environment, but the truth is that those same mountains can trap air pollutants, including air pollutants from outside the county, up against the foothills," said Bill Hayes, Boulder County Public Health Air Quality Coordinator. "Knowing when air quality is bad — and what to do when it is — can help you protect your health.”

Public health officials recommend checking visibility as a first step to determine air quality conditions. If visibility is over 10 miles, the air quality is good for particulates. If visibility is 5 - 10 miles, the air quality is acceptable. Visibility below 5 miles is concerning and outdoor activity should be limited.

However, ozone levels can be in the unhealthy range even on clear days. Ozone on its own is invisible and is produced when volatile organic compounds (VOCs) mix with combustion emissions in the presence of sunlight. Breathing high levels of ozone can harm the respiratory system. Boulder County's VOCs predominantly come from oil and gas operations to the northeast and combustion byproducts from vehicles. These pollutants often get trapped against the mountains where they receive sunlight that spurs the chemical reaction that produces ozone. Ozone used to be thought of as a summer problem, but ozone season is starting earlier and ending later due to climate change.

Boulder County Public Health officials recommend the following resources to monitor air quality:

  • Sign-up for daily Air Quality Alerts from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. These emails provide current health advisories and air quality forecasts. Subscribe here.
  • Visit airnow.gov. Enter a zip code to see the Air Quality Index (AQI) in that area. The AQI provides a simple snapshot of air quality by combining data from both ozone and particulate monitors.
  • Visit PurpleAir, which displays data from low cost sensors that individuals can purchase. These monitors are not 100% accurate and there is no assurance that they are appropriately located or maintained. Look at the averages of a number of monitors in your area rather than a single monitor reading.
  • Visit BouldAir.com. BCPH operates a monitoring station at the Boulder Reservoir that measures methane and ozone precursors. This website displays near real-time data from the Boulder Reservoir monitoring station along with data from monitoring stations in Longmont and Broomfield.

Public health officials recommend taking the following precautions on poor air quality days:

  • Stay indoors and limit strenuous activity on high ozone days. Ozone levels typically increase as the day goes on. Exercise early in the day when high ozone is forecast and avoid strenuous outdoor activity in the late afternoon and evening. Exercising when ozone levels are high will do your body more harm than skipping a workout.
  • Avoid outdoor physical activities on days with wildfire smoke. If you can see it, smell it, or taste it – you shouldn’t breathe it. Face coverings worn to reduce the spread of COVID-19 do little to prevent breathing in the fine particles and harmful chemicals transported by wildfire smoke.
  • In homes with central air systems, install the highest rated manufacturer-recommended air filters and replace filters regularly.
  • In homes without central air systems, consider installing a portable filtration unit. BCPH recommends HEPA filter models.

"Air quality and climate change are inextricably linked," said Collin Tomb, Boulder County Climate and Health Strategist. "Air pollutants come from the same sources as the greenhouse gases that fuel climate change. In turn, climate change makes air quality worse by extending the length and increasing the severity of our wildfire seasons. Taking action to address climate change will also address air quality."

Boulder County is taking bold steps to limit greenhouse gas emissions and Colorado’s Air Quality Control Commission is considering new rules to limit greenhouse gases. Public comment is taken at each monthly meeting. Visit their website to register.

BCPH will be sharing additional information on air quality topics each day this week via social media. AirNow will also be focusing on a different daily topic.

Please contact Bill Hayes, BCPH Air Quality Coordinator, at 303-441-1574 or bhayes@bouldercounty.org if you have questions or would like additional information.

-BoulderCountyHealth.org-