Las Vegas Sun

November 18, 2019

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Is Las Vegas doomed to poor air quality? Not necessarily, experts say

High Winds Buffet the Valley

Steve Marcus

Dust kicked up by high winds obscures the view of motorists on Las Vegas Boulevard near McCarran International Airport, Thursday, March 30, 2017.

There’s an environmental concern that comes with building a sprawling city in the desert — and no, it’s not just about water supply.

Air quality in Clark County has been subpar for years, and two reports released last year, both of which found that the Las Vegas area has some of the worst air quality in the country, brought the issue into focus once again.

Although air quality has improved in Clark County in the last few decades, the region is subject to several factors that put it at a disadvantage: high temperatures expected to increase as climate change intensifies, lots of sunlight that helps form certain pollutants, little precipitation to flush those pollutants out, and one of the fastest-growing populations in the country.

So is the region doomed for poor, or at least below average, air quality for the foreseeable future?

Not necessarily, says UNLV professor Lung-Wen Antony Chen, who has been studying air quality in Las Vegas for the last four years. But policy changes are needed to address the issue, as well as an understanding that some parts of the county — and some populations — are more at risk than others.

Part of Chen’s research examines the connection between air quality and environmental justice in the Las Vegas Valley, or the ways that disadvantaged populations, such as low-income people, people of color and recent immigrants, are more exposed to harmful pollutants. Air quality is often worse in less desirable Las Vegas neighborhoods, such as near the airport, power plants, incinerators and major highways, Chen said, but national and regional measurements of air quality don’t always take this into consideration.

“My focus is on those communities,” Chen said.

In this effort, Chen has developed ways for communities to take air quality concerns into their own hands, having created portable, affordable air quality sensors. Because people can carry the sensors on their person throughout the day, they also factor in indoor air pollutants, which can be just as harmful as outdoor pollutants.

Chen recently brought his air quality research to a Spring Valley neighborhood close to Wells Cargo Inc., a construction company on Spring Mountain Road. Some community members, as well as the Clark County School District, have raised concerns about whether the plant has impacted air quality in the neighborhood.

Chen and his team at the UNLV Urban Air Quality Laboratory set up air samplers at Spring Valley High School in November and distributed portable sensors to students in the school’s environmental club. Although the Clark County Air Quality Management Department has not identified unsafe pollutant levels in the neighborhood, Chen wanted to give residents the opportunity to measure the air they breathe all day long.

“So far, the results have been consistent, showing no exceedances to air quality standards, though there were occasionally higher concentrations in the evening after the school sessions,” he wrote in an email. “We will continue to monitor the conditions coming into the spring windy season.”

Poor air quality has been linked to eye, nose and throat irritation, and respiratory diseases such as asthma. Sheniz Moonie, an epidemiology and biostatistics professor at UNLV, explained that while it is difficult to pinpoint poor air quality as the cause of asthma, it is known to exacerbate the problem.

“If you look at school-age children and look at schools in proximity closer to highways, rates for asthma are extremely high, and that does point to something going on environmentally,” Moonie said.

Despite this potential for localized poor air quality in the valley, Chen noted that there have been past successes when it comes to Las Vegas’ air quality.

For example, dust was once one of the most problematic and persistent pollutants throughout the valley. The pollutant forms as a result of high wind conditions, and as a byproduct of construction work. The dust concentration in Clark County has decreased in recent years thanks to the efforts of the Air Quality Management Department.

“Over the years, we have developed a lot of dust management practices,” said Mike Sword, the planning manager for the department.

Today, the most problematic pollutant in the region is ground-level ozone, which is produced when nitrogen oxides (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) react in the presence of ultraviolet radiation from sunlight. NOx and VOCs can come from a variety of sources, including automobiles and power plants.

Clark County’s concentration of ground-level ozone exceeds the standards set by the EPA in 2015, when the federal agency lowered the threshold of acceptable concentrations of ozone from 75 parts per billion to 70.

“That brought us into non-attainment,” Sword said. “What that means for us is we have to go to work.”

Although the department is largely devoted to monitoring air quality, it is also involved in enforcing regulations and disciplining major polluters. Last year, the department issued more than 140 notices of violation of air quality standards, and collected approximately $1.3 million in penalties due to violations. Those efforts will continue as part of the county’s quest to reduce ozone.

Still, Chen believes that bold action across local and state agencies would most effectively improve air quality in the region, particularly when it comes to ozone and especially as the valley grows in population — and cars. For example, Chen recently completed a study on the health benefits of the Regional Transportation Commission converting the power source for its buses from diesel to compressed natural gas power — something the RTC has already done for 75 percent of its buses.

“We found pretty big health benefits, even though that’s just a tiny fraction of motor vehicle emissions in the valley,” Chen said.

A similar transition away from dirty fuels for personal vehicles could also help clean up the valley’s air, Chen added. This transition might look like cracking down on cars that are out of compliance with modern pollution standards, or promoting fuel-efficient cars.

“We want to get those old vehicles out of the street, and also to some degree promote personal electric vehicles,” he said.

Even though climate change could exacerbate air pollution concerns in the valley, as hotter, sunnier days increase ozone production and wildfires in nearby California are expected to intensify, both Chen and Sword are hopeful that the region’s air quality will improve.

“There are technologies that come out routinely, and there’s a better understanding of what causes the problems,” Sword said. “Once you understand what causes the problems, you can start figuring out the solutions to those problems.”