Sunday, July 21, 2019

The Air You Breathe:
San Antonio's Air Quality & Helping Kids with Asthma

Chrissie Murnin interviews guests from San Antonio’s Metropolitan Health District on the KONO 101.1 Public Affairs Show. Wendell Hardin, WFU Sustainability Graduate Program Alumnus, is the Ozone Attainment Program Manager and Cara Hausler is the Program Manager of SA Kids B.R.E.A.T.H.E., a new program helping families manage asthma in children.

What are the problems that we are facing with San Antonio’s air quality? For many years San Antonio was in “attainment”, but now we are not. Explain that please.

Last September 24th, 2018, we were notified by EPA that our county, Bexar County, was out of attainment. What that means is that we are actually above the parts per billion limit of ground level ozone standards within our air.

We think of San Antonio of having clean air, don’t we?

We do, but I think we have to remember that we are kind of in a valley. Our weather patterns normally bring winds from the southeast moving northwest - which means it brings a lot of the Gulf air up here. And then it gets into an inversion pattern as it hits the hill country and comes right back around at us. So that causes us to have a lot of heavy air and smog at times, depending upon the time of year. Our time of year for smog is really summer. You have other cities such as Denver that has smog in the winter.

So ground level ozone is being measured all of the time, everyday?

Yes, by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), the environmental air quality group that monitors and reports our numbers every day. We can view reports down to the hour, but we are really looking at an eight hour average.

So what are the things that make our air out of attainment? Would you call our air dirty?

I wouldn't call it dirty, per se. It does have components that every city has - basically car exhaust and industrial emissions. But we are really not a heavy industrial city like many northern cities and some of the Gulf Coast cities. So I would say that we are in the moderate range for air quality, but we do have times when air quality is less than desirable. So we are always looking at that as well.

So what are the things that we are doing that contribute to the problem?

Ozone is not a major pollutant in itself. It is what we call a secondary pollutant. What happens is the nitrous oxides (NOx) in our air coming from vehicle exhaust or industrial emission mixes with a volatile organic compound (VOC). Think of a dry cleaner’s operation or automobile paint operations - industries that use chemical solvents and items like that. When those two mix together and are hit by sunlight, the sun catalyzes those two components to make ground level ozone.

So it cooks it up, hits it, bakes it and produces ozone.

The heat plays a role, but is just a small part of it. UV radiation, or solar radiation, is the actual catalyst. How much sunlight are we actually getting that day? And then we look at the wind. The wind is really a friend of ours. If we have winds above 10 miles an hour, it can push the ozone away from us. But if not, the ground level ozone just lays over the area.

Who decides when we are going to have an ozone action air quality health alert day? What are the alerts called?

That is an Ozone Action Day alert. It is a warning that conditions are favorable for ozone to build. We are told by the Texas Environmental Commission that “Tomorrow we think conditions are going to be right for ozone levels to be elevated.” So we are alerted around 2 p.m. the day before an alert is issued. We then try to make the public alert as well.


And what do you want us to do on those days?

On those days, we would love to see people use alternate transportation such as VIA. However, that is not always plausible. So we ask people to get out a little earlier - before the traffic really starts getting heavy. If you are going to refuel your tank, either do it before you go to work prior to 7 a.m. or after 7 p.m. at night. Because ground level ozone builds through the day, on a real sunny morning you will start to see an accumulation around noon - when everybody starts going back out for lunch. We really would ask people to say, “Hey, let's have lunch at work today.” Bring your lunch. Don't go through a drive-thru. Drive-thrus provide a lot of convenience, but people are going to wait in a long line with the engine running. On Ozone Action Days, that in itself is like a little smog area that you are building by having 10-20 cars idling there. If you find yourself in that situation turn your car off when you can. Unfortunately for San Antonio, we deal with the heat - people don't feel like they can do that.

Riverwalk in San Antonio, Texas
Riverwalk in San Antonio, Texas

What about lawn mowing?

I bought an electric lawn mower that is battery operated so that I am not putting out those fumes. People think, “So I just have a lawn mower. I'm just cutting my lawn.” Think about it. Over a million people live here and you get a couple hundred thousand people mowing at the same time. That contributes to quite a bit of ozone as well.


Do you notice people change their behavior on Ozone Action Days?

Really, it is hard to tell because we can’t get down to that population level. We are just trying to get out the word and we are hoping that the behavior changes. We will see it in total numbers based on how our ozone looks on those days. Hopefully, they won't be as high, but at the same time you still have industrial operations going on, chemical operations going on, and we are a big city. People drive a lot of places. For a city of what I think is over two million people, if you take the metro area totally, you are looking at over four and a half million cars that are registered. So that is a lot of vehicles that could be on the road - probably not at the same time - but even if you took half, you have got two million cars on the road.

I wonder if people feel like, “You know, I'm just one little person. So what if I mow? So what if I go to the drive-through? So what if I do all my errands and make multiple trips?” They don't feel like they are making that much of an impact.

I would remind them that they are out there in that air quality. If you are mowing your lawn, you are taking in the exhaust from that mowing operation. If you are sitting in line at a drive-thru with 10 cars, all of those cars are idling. You are in that air cloud, that ozone cloud. So, it does affect you.

Even if you don't have a respiratory problem, as we age our lungs get weaker. These particles are small. They get into your lungs and you will have an issue later on. But not only that, remember your blood filters everything. So anything that comes into your system through your lungs is going to get into your bloodstream which travels through the heart.

So a healthy person doesn't feel it. Who is affected by poor air quality?

It is really across the whole population. From preemies with under developed lungs to children with asthma on the playground, there are certain times during the day that they should not be out. When we have an Ozone Action Day, we would prefer them not to be out between noon and 7 p.m. And we would really like the school system to think about that when they hold recess - because we still have fall Ozone Action Days in September and October. For adults with failing lung systems from asthma, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Diseases (COPD), emphysema, the loss of a lung to cancer, or the beginnings of lung cancer - anything like that - it is going to put a strain on their lungs.

So it is harder on on older people, especially older people with a breathing or a heart problem?

That is correct. Anyone with respiratory problems, fluid build up in the lungs, even those with heart problems, congestive heart failure, will suffer during this time.

We mentioned people exercising - healthy people. They are out there jogging in peak times and what are they doing?

They are breathing in the ozone. They are breathing in the carbon dioxide. They are breathing in all those components that are not good for their lungs. Say joggers are exercising from four to six on a running path near a heavy intersection. They are actually putting their lungs at risk because of the traffic that is backed up. Just think of it as a gigantic drive-thru and everybody is sitting there idling - and you are running through that air. I would ask people when we have an Ozone Action Day, please work a different time into your schedule - a time away from noon to 7 p.m. Try to stay out of that air because that quality of air is really going to damage your lungs.

And here you think you are being healthy and really it is kind of a kind of a wash, isn't it?

It really is. I am all for being healthy and exercising. But you really need to be thoughtful about the time at which you are outside - especially during the summer - because that is when we have our biggest problems.

A bridge in San Antonio, Texas
San Antonio, Texas

Noon to 7 p.m. are the hours that are most critical. That the air is, I guess, the heaviest, the hottest. I don’t want to say dirtiest because you are saying we don't have dirty air, but....

Well, it is not so much dirty, it is really the quantity of particulates in the air. We look at such small particulates in ozone’s particular basis - we look at parts per billion. But, those are the type of particles that can get deep into your lungs. That is why we look at such small levels of it. We will study anywhere from parts per million to parts per trillion, but it is the parts per billion that the EPA looks at.

What took us out of attainment was that the government decided in 2015 to reduce the qualifier from 75 parts per billion to 70 parts per billion. So that is what hurt us. We were within the realm of 70 parts per billion, but now we are at 72 parts per billion - which doesn't meet the new standard. So you can see that we are right on the cusp of getting back in attainment, but it is really going to take a lot of effort by us.

We have developed a master plan within the city, that the city council passed, to help us look at various areas within the community - whether it be businesses or getting the word out from a communication side. I am looking at advocacy, available funding, and point sources - industrial and local businesses - to develop mitigation strategies.

So when the standard was 75, we were fine. But when it dropped it to 70, that is what got us. So what does that do for individuals? And I am asking about vehicles. There are certain things that change when we are a city that is not in attainment.

Yes. If you look over the historical ozone numbers for San Antonio, you will see a very big number of 91 some decades ago. Now we are down into the 70s. A lot of that is because we have developed cleaner technology with cars emissions, cleaner gas, and cleaner fuels. But there are even cleaner alternatives such as electric that we could be moving to - even compressed natural gas. VIA is working on that technology with their bus systems.

There is a new program through the VW Settlement where school buses can be replaced with cleaner fuels as well. This is happening right now. That period is open for the school districts to put in requests for those dollars. I believe we have something like 21 million dollars that was allocated for that. We already have 16 million spoken for, but we are still looking for more school districts to say, “We want to do this too.” The maximum allocation per district is twenty new school buses and a number of districts have already taken advantage of the program.

The number of school buses is a high volume of vehicles on the road every day - morning and afternoon.

Every day. It would be nice if the districts that are bringing in the new buses would evaluate their routes. We have monitors for air quality throughout the city with one right next to Marshall High School. That is one area that tilts quite a bit over that limit of 70. If we really look at the school system there, I believe that is Northside, they could take those 20 new buses - those cleaner buses - and work their routes around that high school. That could make a difference.

So where are the other monitors and what do they look like?

They are kind of like a small mobile office transport you would see on a construction site. But they are filled with all kinds of high technology equipment that has to be calibrated almost weekly from what I understand from my tech team. We have one at Camp Bullis, one next to Marshall High School and one that is southeast by Calaveras Lake. I think we would really benefit if we could get more monitors that are qualified EPA sites. We also have 10 non-governmental regulated sites in the county that we can look at. The numbers from those locations won't count against us - or for us - but it gives us the ability to look at different areas of the county and the city to see what is going on in those areas.

Does the one by Calaveras Lake have better air?

The lake is on the other side of various industries in that area of San Antonio. Southeasterly winds take the ozone producers or precursors, the NOx’s and the VOC’s, generated by those industries and pushes them northwest toward the city. So we find an accumulation taking place in the north and northwest. It is an area we are targeting right now. We believe targeting those areas will help us to develop strategies that can be implemented city wide.

Beneficial for all. So what are some of the things that each individual, like car owners, face as punitive measures because we are a city of non attainment - like Houston?

It is really hard to compare us to Houston, because Houston has been in non attainment for a long time. But what I would say for us, if we do not get back into attainment by 2020….

Next year. That is when we have to.

Yes, because the EPA evaluates on a three year average and then they take the fourth highest average. They know that the first three might just be offsets or outliers. So they have kept it to the fourth highest when they measure.

If we don't do anything to correct it, we may experience what happened in the Dallas area. Some of those cities are now having to have their car emissions checked. The federal government could put in more types of emitting processes. Things that would slow down our economic development and slow down our growth as a city. So we are trying to make sure that everyone understands that we need to do something as a population and as a business community so that doesn’t happen. We thrive here and we do not want that to slow down. We have to be mindful of our air quality here so that we are not put under the auspices of the federal government.

I believe everybody feels the same way. So the way to do that is for everyone to get involved. Plan your trips where you are going, fuel your car after certain hours, look about when you are doing your lawn care. Don’t be mowing the lawn at one in the afternoon. Make sure that you work as a group. Talk amongst your neighbors. How can you do it as a block? How can you contribute by carpooling? There are a lot of opportunities to make a difference.

Look at the City of San Antonio website under Air Quality for the Community for metro health. You will find information about ground level ozone, as well as plans and ideas on how to mitigate the problem - in both businesses and the community. We are also meeting with businesses to get them involved so they can become one of our biggest partners.

I was wondering who makes the biggest impact. Do you lose sleep at night over this?  2020. You have to have the air quality of the whole city at this level to be in attainment.

Yes, personally I do lose sleep over this because I am the one trying to get the message out. We are an educational group. We are trying to bring the word to everyone so they understand. We have all kinds of events that address the public health issues that we talked about earlier. But there is also an economic side to it. If we don't do something, we could lose over a billion dollars worth of economic development and growth over the next ten years.

And then there is our health.

That is the key because how much does it cost for our health? Health care is a big factor in our daily lives. A lot of people do not have good health care - or even have health care at all. We have programs to help people. We want to make the community aware of these resources so they can access and take advantage of them.

We have programs like the one Cara Hausler manages - SA Kids B.R.E.A.T.H.E., a new program helping families manage asthma in children to reduce hospitalizations and sick days. If your child has issues with asthma we are here to help make sure they are getting the best care possible.

One thing you can do is to get Ozone Action Day alerts sent directly to your phone or computer. You can find more information on the TCEQ website or call us here at the office and let us know that you want us to set up alerts. We will be glad to do that for you as well.

So you can get the alerts sent directly to your phone. How do people reach you?

The best way to reach me is to give me a call personally on my work phone at 210-207-5538. I will connect you with one of our techs who will set you up with Ozone Action Day alerts.

Thank you, Wendell Hardin, Ozone Attainment Program Manager for the City of San Antonio’s Metropolitan Health District.

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font-family:Arial,sans-serif; font-size:14px; font-style:normal; font-weight:550; line-height:18px;"> View this post on Instagram</div></div><div style="padding: 12.5% 0;"></div><div style="display: flex; flex-direction: row; margin-bottom: 14px; align-items: center;"><div><div style="background-color: #F4F4F4; border-radius: 50%; height: 12.5px; width: 12.5px; transform: translateX(0px) translateY(7px);"></div><div style="background-color: #F4F4F4; height: 12.5px; transform: rotate(-45deg) translateX(3px) translateY(1px); width: 12.5px; flex-grow: 0; margin-right: 14px; margin-left: 2px;"></div><div style="background-color: #F4F4F4; border-radius: 50%; height: 12.5px; width: 12.5px; transform: translateX(9px) translateY(-18px);"></div></div><div style="margin-left: 8px;"><div style=" background-color: #F4F4F4; border-radius: 50%; flex-grow: 0; height: 20px; width: 20px;"></div><div style=" width: 0; height: 0; border-top: 2px solid transparent; border-left: 6px solid #f4f4f4; border-bottom: 2px solid transparent; transform: translateX(16px) translateY(-4px) rotate(30deg)"></div></div><div style="margin-left: auto;"><div style=" width: 0px; border-top: 8px solid #F4F4F4; border-right: 8px solid transparent; transform: translateY(16px);"></div><div style=" background-color: #F4F4F4; flex-grow: 0; height: 12px; width: 16px; transform: translateY(-4px);"></div><div style=" width: 0; height: 0; border-top: 8px solid #F4F4F4; border-left: 8px solid transparent; transform: translateY(-4px) translateX(8px);"></div></div></div></a><p style=" margin:8px 0 0 0; padding:0 4px;"><a href="" style=" color:#000; font-family:Arial,sans-serif; font-size:14px; font-style:normal; font-weight:normal; line-height:17px; text-decoration:none; word-wrap:break-word;" target="_blank">Sustainability Graduate Programs Director and former EPA Deputy Administrator, Stan Meiburg, catches up with alumnus, Wendell Hardin in San Antonio, Texas. While enrolled in our certificate program Wendell served as the Sustainability Manager for the city of Winston Salem! After graduation he moved to San Antonio where he is a Special Projects Manager for the city. #wfualumni #wfu #sanantonio #winstonsalem #SUSgrad</a></p><p style=" color:#c9c8cd; font-family:Arial,sans-serif; font-size:14px; line-height:17px; margin-bottom:0; margin-top:8px; overflow:hidden; padding:8px 0 7px; text-align:center; text-overflow:ellipsis; white-space:nowrap;">A post shared by <a href="" style=" color:#c9c8cd; font-family:Arial,sans-serif; font-size:14px; font-style:normal; font-weight:normal; line-height:17px;" target="_blank"> Sustainability Grad Programs</a> (@wfu_sustainablegrad) on <time style=" font-family:Arial,sans-serif; font-size:14px; line-height:17px;" datetime="2018-12-31T22:29:28+00:00">Dec 31, 2018 at 2:29pm PST</time></p></div></blockquote><script async src="//"></script>

Listen to the Interview…

The Air You Breathe: San Antonio's Air Quality and Helping Kids With Asthma The City of San Antonio Metropolitan Health District's Wendell Hardin and Cara Hausler talk about working to make San Antonio healthier.

As the Ozone Attainment Program Manager, Hardin says that everyone must work together to reduce air pollution to meet EPA's air quality standards for San Antonio by 2020.

Listen to the entire broadcast to hear Cara Hausler, the Program Manager of SA Kids B.R.E.A.T.H.E., talk about a new program that helps families manage asthma in children.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Originally broadcast at KONO 101.1 Public Affairs Show on July 21, 2019.

Photography credit for main image: Matthew LeJune on Unsplash.

Photography credit: Micheal0424 on Pixabay.

Photography credit: Defying14me on Pixabay.

Article Written By:
Featured Contributor:
Graduate Certificate in Sustainability '18

Ozone Attainment Program Manager

The City of San Antonio