Air Pollution 101
As one of the top-ranked areas for ozone, particle pollution, and toxic air releases, the Houston region is no stranger to air quality concerns. On this page, you’ll find information about air pollution and what you can do to reduce your exposure, as well as links to further resources.
What is Air Pollution?
An air pollutant is a substance in the air that can have adverse effects on humans and the environment. Pollutants can take the form of gases, solid particles, or liquid droplets and can be classified as primary or secondary:
Secondary pollutants form when primary pollutants react in the atmosphere. For example, ground-level ozone is created when hydrocarbons (HC) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) combine in sunlight.
Some pollutants may be both primary and secondary. Formaldehyde, for instance, may be emitted directly from a source and may also be formed by secondary reactions of certain hydrocarbons.
Common Air Pollutants
What Are the Sources of Air Pollution?
While outdoor air pollution originates from both natural and man-made sources, the contribution from human activities far exceeds natural sources. Often times indoor air pollution can be even worse than outdoor air pollution depending on the chemicals in your building.
Health and Equity Effects
Worldwide, an estimated 4.2 million premature deaths globally are associated with poor outdoor air quality, mainly from heart disease, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer, and acute respiratory infections in children.
While everyone is affected, most of the disease burden is borne by marginalized populations who tend to live near busy roads and industrial sites with higher air pollution levels.
Other vulnerable groups include people with pre-existing lung or heart disease, as well as children and the elderly. Due to their developing lungs, children are particularly susceptible to the harmful impacts and face an increased risk of deficits in lung function and long-term reductions in lung growth rate.
Improving air quality would reduce the many premature deaths linked to air pollution and lead to improved health and quality of life for all Americans. Reducing air emissions is also necessary for achieving health equity since cleaner air would bring large health benefits especially to those who currently bear the brunt of the exposure.
How to Stay Safe?
Until air pollution is stopped at source, minimize your exposure with these simple actions:
Air Pollution Regulation in the U.S. and Texas
The Clean Air Act – The Clean Air Act is a US federal law designed to protect human health and the environment from harmful air pollution caused by a diverse array of pollution sources.
The Clean Air Act requires the EPA to issue minimum standards, known as National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS), for six common primary and secondary air pollutants known as criteria pollutants: ground level ozone, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, lead, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide.
Other provisions of the Act include reducing emissions of hazardous or toxic air pollutants that pose cancer or other serious health risks; reducing concentrations of air pollutants that cause regional haze or acid rain; and phasing out production and use of chemicals that deplete the stratospheric ozone layer.
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) is the agency assigned to enforce the Clean Air Act in Texas. However, the TCEQ’s enforcement record leaves much to be desired: A recent investigation by the Environmental Integrity Project found that the TCEQ issued penalties for less than 3 percent of unauthorized air pollution releases from 2011 to 2016.
While the Houston area has never met the air quality standards set for ozone, the Clean Air Act has driven air quality improvements nationally for nearly 50 years, preventing hundreds of thousands of cases of serious health effects each year.
It is critical that the Act remains enforced to ensure continued protection of all Americans from harmful impacts of air pollution.