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June 9, 2020

Boulder County’s high summer ozone & COVID-19

A dangerous combination

Boulder County, CO - June 1 marked the official start to high ozone season in the Denver-Boulder metro area and air quality alerts were issued even before that date. On May 28, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment issued 2020’s first ozone action day alert for Boulder County.

Ozone action day alerts mean that hot and sunny conditions will lead to ozone concentrations reaching levels that are unhealthy for sensitive groups, including anyone with a respiratory condition such as asthma. Increased ozone levels are especially concerning right now while we are fighting the COVID-19 respiratory virus. The American Lung Association gave Boulder County an “F” due to our high levels of ozone, an invisible pollutant that attacks our lungs and makes individuals more susceptible to severe illness from COVID-19.

“While we did see an improvement to air quality from reduced commuter traffic during the stay-at-home order,” said Collin Tomb, Boulder County Public Health Air and Climate Team Lead , “The move to some people returning to the office may make those improvements short-lived. Air pollutants from vehicles, together with those associated with the extraction, burning, and manufacturing of fossil fuels, are the cause of our especially high ozone.”

In the presence of sunlight, ozone is created via a chemical reaction of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and nitrogen oxides (NOX), which cause particularly high levels of ozone pollution during summer months. Overall, ozone levels in the Denver Metro/North Front Range area are above the National Ambient Air Quality Standards for ground-level ozone as set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under the Clean Air Act.

Breathing ground-level ozone can cause symptoms such as coughing, throat irritation, pain, burning, tightness or discomfort in the chest, and wheezing or shortness of breath. Long-term exposure to ozone causes more frequent and severe asthma attacks, increased hospitalizations, and higher rates of illness and death.

“On a larger scale, ozone is a greenhouse gas that hastens climate change, which worsens ozone pollution, thus creating a cyclical relationship between ozone and the climate crisis,” says Cindy Copeland, Boulder County Public Health Air and Climate Policy Specialist . “Communities that are already experiencing higher rates of infection and disruption from COVID-19 in Boulder County are also more vulnerable to the other negative health impacts of air pollution and ultimately suffer more from climate change.”

Anyone concerned about the impacts of ozone pollution on health or the climate can make their voices heard at an upcoming virtual public hearing at the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission on June 18 at 9 a.m. During the hearing the Air Pollution Control Division will ask the Commission to approve the emissions inventory for the Marginal area plan to achieve the federal ozone standards set in 2015. The baseline inventory developed for this requirement covers the year 2017 and includes data for both the ozone precursors VOCs and NOX. It is widely recognized that the emissions inventory most likely underrepresents emissions from specific source sectors such as oil and gas.

The hearing notice and agenda is available on the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission website. Written comments can be submitted (preferably 8 days before the hearing) by emailing comments to Community members can also register to give oral comments at the virtual hearing.

For more information, please contact Christian Herrmann at