Metro Denver, Fort Collins rise up the list of worst U.S. cities for air pollution

Metro Denver and Fort Collins rank increasingly high on a notorious list that comes out each year — the worst U.S. cities for air pollution.

Only the Los Angeles area and parts of California’s Central Valley now consistently outperform Colorado’s Front Range cities with their levels of ground-level ozone, which is linked to hospitalizations, ER visits and thousands of premature deaths.

Metro Denver ranked eighth-worst for ozone, up from 10th in 2020 and 12th in 2019, according to a compilation of federal data by the American Lung Association. (Denver is tied with the Salt Lake City metro area.) Fort Collins jumped to 17th-worst, up from 19th in 2020 and 24th in 2019.

“We’re failing. It is not necessarily an easy problem to solve. A lot of the easy juice to squeeze, that’s already been done,” said National Jewish Health pulmonologist Dr. Anthony Gerber, who also serves on the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission, which guides state policy on air pollution.

For the second week in a row, residents of metro Denver and other northern Front Range cities are facing air quality alerts as ozone levels spike above the federal health limit of 70 parts per billion — 89 ppb in Golden, 74 ppb in Rocky Mountain National Park, 81 ppb at the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge, 76 ppb in Fort Collins and 73 ppb in Chatfield State Park southwest of Denver.

The American Lung Association advocates a health limit for ozone of 60 ppb, in line with World Health Organization recommendations.

And Colorado has failed to meet the existing national health standards so frequently over the past decade that Environmental Protection Agency officials last year reclassified the state as a “serious” violator. That put a nine-county area along the Front Range in the same league as Phoenix, the Los Angeles area, Dallas, Chicago, Houston and Salt Lake City. The Environmental Protection Agency classifies parts of California’s central valley and metro Los Angeles as “extreme” violators.

Across the West, ozone pollution has intensified, driven by a combination of factors that air quality authorities warn may no longer be controllable: a warming climate, aridity and wildfires. When fires burn across larger areas in forests, they churn up particulate pollution that is spread in smoke, which can accelerate formation of ozone. Population growth, meanwhile, brings more vehicles that, along with industry, churn out ozone-forming pollutants.

Colorado health officials are mulling measures — short of public transit overhauls that cost billions — in an effort to address ozone pollution. These include:

  • More aggressively encouraging landscaping companies and homeowners to stop using gas-powered lawn mowers, weed cutters and other tools;
  • Getting high-pollution vehicles off roads by giving incentives to residents for shifting to zero-emission electric vehicles;
  • Plugging regulatory holes to target major polluters inside Colorado but outside of the Front Range such as oil and gas facilities and unregulated trucks.

“Otherwise,” Gerber said, “we’re going to be facing this pollution for the foreseeable future.”

Ozone pollution forms when chemical gases, including volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides, mix in sunlight. It causes breathing problems and triggers asthma attacks.

“If your air is bad for two to six weeks,” Gerber said, “you’ll start to see chronic effects on your lung functioning.”

American Lung Association doctors have been pressing President Joe Biden’s administration to make bigger investments to install electric vehicle charging stations and offer sufficient incentives for drivers, including tax credits, rebates and free use of charging stations and highway express lanes.

“Denver and Colorado have good climate strategies in place,” ALA advocacy director JoAnna Strother said, “but every state needs to do more because temperatures are rising and some of these things are out of our control.”

If Colorado’s consistent violations of health limits lead the EPA to downgrade the state more — to  “severe” violator status — health officials would be forced to do more to reduce air pollution. Beyond vehicles, they’d have to impose tougher restrictions on oil and gas facilities and other industrial sources.

“The EPA is working closely with the CDPHE as they implement and revise plans to achieve Clean Air Act standards and reduce ozone,” said Carl Daly, acting director of the EPA’s regional air division. “The EPA will also determine, by early next year, whether further measures will be required for the Front Range.”

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