Las Vegas Sun

December 16, 2018

Currently: 46° — Complete forecast

The environment:

Here are a few ways to make Las Vegas’ air quality challenges better

smog

Staff file

A layer of smog hangs over the Las Vegas Valley in 2008. Clark County received poor marks from the American Lung Association’s State of the Air 2018 report this spring.

On the worst days, there’s a toilet bowl ring of smog around the valley. You may not notice it if you spend most of your time in the center of town: When you’re in the mix, you can’t see it. But if you venture to the edge of town and find a good view, you probably won’t like what you see. Fortunately, the smog doesn’t appear every day. But it comes often enough — especially when the air is hot and calm­ — that Clark County received poor marks from American Lung Association State of the Air 2018 report this spring. Here’s what you need to know about air pollution, how to protect yourself and more.

Air Quality Index (AQI)

This is the national system for reporting how healthy the air is. It uses the Clean Air Act as a guideline and reports on ground-level ozone, particle pollution, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide.

What is particle pollution?

It’s everything that’s suspended in the air, solid and/or liquid. Also known as “particulate matter,” it can include dust, pollen, mold, dirt, soot, smoke, sulfuric acid and a variety of compounds and chemicals, such as sodium chloride and ammonium nitrate.

• Problem particles: The clouds of yellow pollen falling from trees in the spring would count as particulate matter that’s big enough to see. But the smallest stuff is actually the most harmful to your health. Some particles are so small they’re effectively invisible (you’d need an electron microscope to detect them). Because they’re so tiny, they can bypass the body’s physical defenses (such as nose hairs) and enter the lungs and even the heart.

• Where it comes from: Everywhere. It can come from driving on unpaved roads, constructing a building or cooking. Even dusting sends particles into the air. Another type of pollution, called secondary particles, occurs when the various stuff in the air interacts with each other while floating around the atmosphere—think of car exhaust interacting with the emissions from a factory or power plant.

• Health dangers: Fine particles can affect both the respiratory and cardiovascular systems (causing heart failure, strokes, asthma attacks, coughing and more). The problems are more pronounced with the very young and very old, as well as those who already have health problems.

The body’s defenses: The lungs have a self-cleaning system called “mucociliary clearance,” which is the fancy way of describing all the muck you cough up in the morning. If you’re healthy, your body will clear most of the pollution from your body within 24 hours. The problem is when you have underlying health problems, which impede the clearance.

American Lung Association Las Vegas Rankings

• Ozone: F grade

• Particle Pollution 24-hour: C grade

• 12 of 227 metropolitan areas for high ozone days

• 24 of 187 metro areas for annual particle pollution

• 46 of 201 metro areas for 24-hour particle pollution

• For the complete list, visit the American Lung Association study at tinyurl.com/ybyqqpll

Do we meet government standards?

“By federal, health-based standards, Clark County is in attainment for all criteria pollutants,” Clark County Department of Air Quality spokesperson Kevin MacDonald said. “Simply put, the air we breathe is safe and poses no immediate risks with regard to the six criteria pollutants we monitor, including ozone, at this time.”

Why is our air problematic?

How to do your part to keep the air clear

• Get a smog test and keep your car in top shape, so it’s running efficiently.

• Carpool, use public transit, walk or bike.

• Combine car trips to drive less.

• Avoid idling engine (go inside the restaurant instead of the drive-thru).

• Keep open flames to a minimum (that means wood fires, grills and even candles, for those whose lungs are sensitive).

• Little rain to “scrub” the air.

• We rely on wind to blow it away. When there’s no wind, it festers.

• Lots of heat and sunshine.

• The Vegas Valley is like a bowl where the smog sits in the center.

• Smoke from wildfires and smog drifts in from California.

What is ozone?

How is it that a hole in the ozone layer is bad, but then having too much ozone in the air is also bad? Well, it depends on its location. Ozone is a compound made from three oxygen atoms. When it’s high in the sky, it protects the planet from the sun’s powerful rays. When it’s low to the ground — say, breathing height — it can cause health problems when inhaled. Ground-level ozone is formed when different particle pollution compounds in the air react. Unfortunately for Vegas, the creation of ozone is turbo powered by sunlight.

Indoor air is important, too

Clark County populations most affected by air pollution

• Pediatric asthma: 36,390

• Adult asthma: 150,570

• COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease): 129,534

• Lung cancer: 1,242

• Cardiovascular disease: 168,781

• Diabetes: 205,978

• Children under 18: 551,082

• Adults 65+: 374,922

• Total Population of Clark County 2,404,336

While you have more control over the air in your own home, keeping it clean requires a bit of upkeep. “If you keep your doors closed and your window sealed, then indoor air doesn’t have the same cleaning power that mother nature provides,” says Donavan Rohde, vice president and general manager at One Hour Air Conditioning & Heating Las Vegas. “Your central HVAC circulates all the air within your home. There are products you can add to make your whole home air cleaner.”

Tips for clean air at home

• Replace your air filters regularly; neglecting to do so can eventually cause catastrophic failure in the HVAC system.

• Disposable air filters can’t block all microscopic pollutants. For that, you need an electronic air cleaner or UV energy module.

• Get your HVAC system checked by a professional in the spring before running the AC and in the fall before running the heater. “Air conditioning is out of sight, out of mind. You never think about it until it’s broken,” Rohde says. “But it’s mechanical equipment, like a car. It does need regular maintenance if you want longevity and peak efficiency.”

How to reduce your exposure

• Follow daily air quality reports at airnow.gov or download the free phone app EPA Airnow for updated reports based on your location.

• Plan your activities around the quality. When the air is bad, reduce your exertion level and time spent outdoors. (i.e., go for a short walk instead of a long jog).

• When driving, reduce your particulate exposure by setting your air system to “recirculate” instead of “vent.” Staying away from busy roads will also help reduce exposure (this is especially true for pedestrians or bikers). If house hunting, choose a home as far away from busy roads as possible.

This story originally appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly.