New Online "Ozone Map" Will Help Houston Residents Reduce Lung Exposure

Matt Tejada of Air Alliance Houston demonstrates the new ozone website. The mapping function allows residents in an eight-county area to see where ozone has built up or dissipated throughout the day. The regional ozone map refreshes every five minute with data pulled from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
A new local website launches today, one that will allow people to track Houston's most notorious air pollutant, ozone, down to the neighborhood level. KUHF Health and Science reporter Carrie Feibel explains that the online ozone map will work much like a weather map.

The website is called Houstoncleanairnetwork.org. It features a real-time map that tracks ozone as if it were a storm cloud moving across the eight-county region.

Matt Tejada of Air Alliance Houston pulls up the animated map for a particularly bad day, June 26.

“We had some very still winds. And we had the pollution from all the Houston region, from cars, from the factories, from the refineries just kind of hung around in our air for a couple of days and kept re-circulating. And because of that we had some ozone levels we hadn’t seen in about 8 years.”

The ozone appears like an ugly purple bruise centered over Pearland.

“You can see just how powerful the map is. It gives you really good definition of where the ozone was worst. You can click inside anywhere on the map and it can tell you what the levels were in that area.”

Ozone is the main ingredient of smog, and is formed when sunlight interacts with emissions from industry and cars. It irritates the lungs and can be dangerous for children, the elderly and those with respiratory problems like asthma.

There are more than 40 ozone monitors in the Houston region, and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality does post the readings online.

But Tejada says the jumble of numbers and tables can be confusing. And the data isn’t posted until 90 minutes later.

 “You wouldn’t be very comfortable using a weather map that’s an hour and a half old, ‘cause that doesn’t tell you where that thunderstorm is. Well, the exact same thing happens with ozone, it moves across the area kind of like a weather cloud does and you need to know where it is right now and where it is likely to be headed, in order to make an informed choice of whether you should go out in that area or not.”

Ozone Map
This map reveals heavy ozone levels centered over Pearland on June 26, 2012. That day had high levels of ozone not seen in eight years

The new map updates every five minutes and tracks ozone down to the one square-kilometer level.

“So you can put your home in there, your kid’s school, your kid’s baseball ground … here are the two parks I like to go running, so in the afternoon you can actually look at it and say, ‘Well, ozone is higher today in Hermann Park than it is out in Terry Hershey Park. I think I’ll go running out in Terry Hershey Park today, because ozone is about 10 or 15 parts per billion lower out there, so it’ll be safer.’”

The project is a collaboration between Air Alliance Houston and scientists at the University of Houston, and it was paid for by a grant from the Houston Endowment.

Alex Wagner is regional director of environmental health for the American Lung Association, Plains-Gulf Region.

He says there are similar ozone maps in Europe and Los Angeles, but nothing like this one when it comes to the immediacy of the data.

“We would love to see something like this in every city. We would love this to be a catalyst to get more air monitoring in cities that are affected on the same level as Houston is.”

The American Lung Association currently ranks Houston #7 among most ozone-polluted cities.

The website goes live today, and next spring there will be a smart-phone app. The website can be found here, and more information on how ozone interacts with Houston’s weather and geography in particular can be found here.

Bio photo of Carrie Feibel

Carrie Feibel

Health & Science Reporter

Carrie Feibel is KUHF's health and science reporter. She comes to Houston Public Radio after ten years as a print reporter...