Air trap: Inversions can spell hell for many in valley
Dawn Morrow is not allowed to go outside.
The brown soupy mix hanging over the Grand Valley spells disaster for her lungs, which already are compromised by a rare lung disease with a long name, lymphangioleiomyomatosis. Cysts on her lungs, which “look like Swiss cheese,” she explained, already make breathing a chore. The local photographer who likes to get out and snap pictures of people and landscapes doesn’t dare venture out much lately and risk inhaling the stubborn spike in the area’s air pollution.
“Basically they told me to wear a mask or breathe through a scarf if I go outside,” the 39-year-old Morrow said about instructions from health care workers from whom she receives pulmonary rehabilitation treatment. “When I drive, I flip the car over to inside air. For the last two weeks, I’ve had to have oxygen on when I sleep.”
It’s true something foul is in the air.
Since Jan. 18, air quality in low-lying areas of Grand Junction has been worse than Denver’s, a metropolitan center of 2.6 million people. For that matter, the amount of fine particulates — a mix of acids like nitrates and sulfates, organic chemicals, metals, soil and dust particles — trapped above the valley are more concentrated here than in any other city in Colorado.
According to the Air Quality Index, a system of measurements devised by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the air here for more than a week has been rated “unhealthy for sensitive groups.”
That label applies to people like Morrow. The bad air also can be harmful for those with heart disease or asthma. When pollutants reach these concentrations, the EPA recommends people with compromised systems refrain from exerting themselves for long periods of time outdoors. Healthy people aren’t likely to affected by the air quality in this range.
“I found if I don’t have a scarf on when walking outside I end up hacking all the way from work to the car,” Morrow said. “It reminds of me of when we used to drive to (Los Angeles) and see the smog and we came in. You want to hold your breath but you have to breathe.”
The cocktail of pollutants that sickens Morrow has Mesa County on the verge of shattering the record of the most no-burn days in one winter season, with nearly two months of winter still to come. And it has the state keeping close tabs on the valley.
Beijing, Salt Lake City
Air quality officials measure air pollution on two scales. Particulates measuring less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter are called fine particulates. They pose the most damaging risk to people and are of most concern to health officials because they pass through the nose and throat and become lodged in the lungs and heart.
Pollution also is measured in a range higher than 2.5 micrometers and less than 10 micrometers. Those inhalable coarse particles typically are caused by dust kicked up by dirt roadways and from large industry.
In order to communicate risks of air pollution to residents, the EPA developed a formula rating air pollution on a scale of 1 to 500, the Air Quality Index. Ratings of 50 or below represent good air quality. Beijing’s air quality on Jan. 13, characterized by news photographs of buildings disappearing into the haze and citizens donning masks, at one point topped the index at 755. Salt Lake City on Thursday hit 117 on the AQI. Areas in Provo and Logan were even worse, graduating to the next level, the “unhealthy” range, with an AQI of 173 on Thursday morning.
Grand Junction entered the “unhealthy for sensitive groups” range after the AQI topped 100. The numbers shot up as the inversion lingered through the week, reaching 149 by Friday morning, the highest rating Brotsky said he’s seen this winter. The most perilous readings come from a three-story building in downtown Grand Junction.
But not all of the Grand Valley’s air is a toxic stew. Anywhere above the inversion, the numbers are negligible. Colorado National Monument’s air was a squeaky clean 5 on Thursday, and readings in Palisade were also firmly in the “good” range, hovering around 20.
State keeps tabs
Dr. William Scott, of the Allergy and Asthma Center of Western Colorado, said he hears more health-related complaints as the inversion hangs around. For most people, elevated pollution levels won’t make much of a difference. For those with existing respiratory problems, the health effect may worsen, but “it’s not a horrible worsening,” he said. However, for people with lung disease or on the verge of lung disease, “it can tip them over the edge.”
“Sometimes people blame it on what they see,” Scott said of the inversion’s visible effects. “People that really have serious asthma, it just adds to their problem.”
From a personal standpoint, the sustained lack of sunlight in the Grand Valley gets him down, Scott said.
“It’s just depressing,” he said. “I can’t think about many things I don’t like about Grand Junction, but inversions is one of them.”
Like clockwork every three days, you can find Ed Brotsky, the Mesa County Health Department air quality specialist, on the roof of a downtown Grand Junction building. From that vantage point, it’s easy to see how the tawny fingers of pollution hang suspended over the valley. The impenetrable smog makes the Uncompahgre Plateau look murky and areas farther west around McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area practically disappear. Only the top of the Grand Mesa is clear, with most of its base ringed with haze like a donut.
But Brotsky isn’t interested in scenery.
His work changing out a series of filters and recording measurements is passed along to the state, the way in which Grand Junction’s information is entered into the AQI.
He removes one coffee-colored filter, replacing it with a clean, white one.
“If you were in Grand Junction yesterday that’s how much you’d breathe in,” he said, displaying the brown filter.
But where did all this muck come from?
Mostly you and me.
According to Brotsky, the pollution measuring less than 2.5 micrometers — which creates the health risks — is caused by any number of combustion sources. Smoke from wood-burning stoves and vehicle exhaust make up most of it. Other factors include the use of hot water heaters, industrial pollution, the effects of drilling and dust from dirt roads.
Only a small portion of this winter’s inversion, which is weather-related, wafts in from other areas, Brotsky said.
Christopher Dann, a spokesman with the Air Pollution Control Division with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said state officials are watching Mesa County’s air quality closely as the inversion lingers.
“This is an area I think it’s fair to characterize at risk,” Dann said of Mesa County.
However, as far as the EPA is concerned, Mesa County has never been out of compliance for its air quality and doesn’t appear to be in any immediate danger of falling out of compliance, Dann said. Being out of compliance would require bad air quality — defined by a complicated formula — for three consecutive years. After that point, local officials would have to present a plan to remedy the situation, such as requiring vehicle emissions. The practice of regulating vehicle emissions is done in Denver, but not in Grand Junction. Local officials could institute any number of programs to improve air quality at any time, including requiring vehicle emissions testing, but they currently are not mandated to so do under state or federal law.
Mesa County isn’t the only area in the state that officials have their eyes trained on, Dann said.
Oil and gas development in Moffat County, Weld County and Greeley is creating poorer air quality there. In southwest Colorado, air quality is poor in the spring because of the dust storms. Denver currently has “good” air quality, but it is the only area in the state out of compliance for its ozone levels, Dann said.
“The air is dirtier (in Mesa County) but it doesn’t mean we still don’t have pollution issues,” he said, comparing air quality on the Western Slope and Front Range.
Overall, air quality standards consistently have been strengthened in the past couple decades, so it’s easier for areas to fall out of compliance or appear to register as dirtier than in years past, Dann said.
“Mesa County is worse that Denver right now. That happens periodically, particularly in the winter,” Dann said. “It has less to do with the size of the valley and more to do with that it’s a valley.”
Over the past two decades, Mesa County has averaged 19 no-burn days a year. On Monday, the county will log its 38th no-burn day this winter season. The record of no-burn days, 40 in one winter season, was set in 1990-91, Brotsky said.
No-burn warnings are issued when it appears the air quality is worsening, which is different than measurements of the AQI. The bans are instated on older model wood stoves in the city limits of Grand Junction and Fruita. Burning with a non EPA-approved stove outside of these areas in Mesa County is discouraged, but it is not banned. Anyone burning in the older style wood stoves is subject to a citation, but the process is complaint-driven so it’s unlikely anyone would be cited.
Strengthening the local laws about wood burning or taking direction to limit agriculture burning in the spring would be initiated locally, Brotsky said.
“The state laws leave it up to the locals to be strict,” he said.