The El Paso area had 126 days of elevated air pollution in 2020, the second most in Texas, according to a new report from Environment Texas Research & Policy Center, Frontier Group and TexPIRG Education Fund.
The report’s findings means that El Pasoans were breathing air with elevated levels of pollution on one out of every three days last year.
“Even one day of breathing in polluted air has negative consequences for our health,” said Luke Metzger, Executive Director of Environment Texas, based in Austin. “One hundred and twenty six days is unacceptable and we need to do more to deliver cleaner air for our communities.”
The report measured days with elevated levels of small particulate matter and elevated ozone. The El Paso area had 78 days with elevated small particulate matter and 68 days of elevated ozone. In total, the city had 126 days with either elevated ozone, particulate matter, or both.
El Paso trailed only Brownsville, which had 129 days of elevated air pollution in 2020. Austin came in third at 103 days, San Antonio fourth at 101 days and Houston rounded out the top five with 96 days.
Both El Paso and Brownsville contend with air pollution coming from Mexican border cities. Vehicle emissions standards and other air quality regulations differ across the border, posing challenges to reduce air pollution. El Paso, Ciudad Juárez and parts of Doña Ana County in New Mexico all share an air basin, meaning efforts must be coordinated across multiple jurisdictions.
While COVID-19 shutdowns may have briefly cleared skies in 2020, the record-setting wildfire season caused dangerous levels of air pollution across the western states.
The report includes recommendations for policymakers to electrify buildings, equipment and transportation, to transition to clean renewable energy and to strengthen federal air quality standards.
“Zeroing out pollution from all aspects of our lives will protect our lungs and our climate at the same time,” said Metzger of Environment Texas.
El Paso’s sunny skies and warm temperatures make the city prone to ozone pollution, also known as smog. Wildfire smoke is increasingly contributing to particulate pollution in the region.
The EPA has proposed designating El Paso to the “nonattainment” status for ozone. If so, Texas would have to make a new plan with the EPA to reduce ozone pollution in El Paso.
Exposure to ozone and particulate pollution is linked to premature death, damage to the respiratory and cardiovascular systems, increased risk to cancer and problems with fertility, conception, pregnancy and birth. Air pollution is also linked to increased risk of infection from infectious diseases, including COVID-19.
While particulate matter or ozone are elevated, people who are unusually sensitive to particulate pollution should spend less time outdoors and reduce their physical activity. People with pre-existing conditions including asthma, heart or lung disease are at high risk and should pay special attention to levels of smog and particulate matter.