With this week’s heat wave in full swing, forecasts for ground level ozone, or smog, are forecast to spike, peaking this Friday with an air quality index of 101, a level classified as “Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups.” The air quality levels have triggered the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to issue an air pollution advisory for the Twin Cities Metro and some outlying areas. While ozone is essential for life when it exists 10 to 30 miles above the earth’s surface in the stratosphere, ozone at ground level can best be compared to a sunburn on the lungs, causing irritation, triggering asthma, and contributing to reduced lung function over time.
Why does the spike coincide with the heat wave, you might ask? Ground level ozone, or smog, forms when Nitrogen Oxides (NOx) (pollutants from wood burning and internal combustion engines) react with volatile organic compounds (VOC’s) (what you smell when paint dries, when you fuel up, or when you have a bonfire) in the presence of heat and sunlight. With this week bringing an abundance of both heat and sunlight, the reactions that create smog will be running in high gear.
The good news is that there are some easy things that we can all do can do before or on air alert days to reduce pollution and help us all breathe easier.
Reduce single-occupancy vehicle trips
Cars are a source of both VOCs and NOx, especially if they are in need of a tune-up. Consider avoiding single-occupancy trips by carpooling, taking public transit, or working from home on poor air quality days. Taking your car into the mechanic? Have them check to make sure your car’s pollution controls are running smoothly.
Avoid Burning Wood
Wood fires, both recreational and for heating purposes, are a substantial source of VOC’s, NOx, and particulate matter (another harmful pollutant). Skip the bonfire and go for a swim on air alert days.
Re-fuel after 6 p.m.
The smell of gasoline is actually the smell of volatile organic compounds that come out of your gas tank when you fill it up. By waiting to fuel up, you can avoid VOC emissions during the heat of the day when ozone formation is at its peak.
Postpone lawn/landscape maintenance
Small, two-stroke engines like those on most lawn equipment, can be a substantial source of both VOCs and NOx. In addition, cut grass itself emits VOCs. Consider holding off on mowing until the heat wave passes and save yourself a wicked sunburn.
Reduce/Defer use of Paints, Solvents, and other VOC-containing products
The volatile organic compounds in paints and solvents allow them to dry quickly and do their job, but they go into the atmosphere as they evaporate. Painting with a 105-degree heat index is no fun anyway, so consider holding off on that household project.
Have questions or want to learn more about what you can do to reduce your air pollution impact? Check on air quality forecasts on the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s website and consider signing up for alert e-mails and downloading their mobile app.
Visit Environmental Initiative’s website to learn about what Clean Air Minnesota partners are doing on an ongoing basis to improve air quality and how you can help.
Air pollution advisory map credit: Minnesota Pollution Control Agency