EVERYONE’S BITCHING ABOUT THE PRICE of gas these days, but $3 a gallon regular is probably the best thing that’s ever happened to us—or to our collective health, anyway. Look at it this way: We’ll all drive less, automakers will be forced to produce more-fuel-efficient cars, and regional entrepreneurs—from Willie Nelson to Exxon Mobil—will continue to pursue cleaner-burning, alternative fuels. Which means, of course, that we’ll have purer air to enjoy. If that doesn’t have you breathing easy already, consider this: Texas’s most underrated public health menace is ozone. I don’t mean the stuff in the atmosphere that shields us from the sun’s heat. I’m talking the noxious air we’re forced to inhale every summer when blistering temperatures combine with emissions from our cars and utility plants to literally “cook up” a poisonous ground-level haze. You might say ozone is our official state pollutant.

Every breath you take? Yep, pretty much. I didn’t always regard ozone as a health threat. Truth be told, I used to scoff at fellow exercisers who limited their summer jogging for fear of breathing less-than-clean air. But recently I’ve found myself short of breath, even nauseated, if I exercise outside during the hot months. When my doctor informed me that “on certain days, exercising in that stuff can actually do more harm than good,” I decided I’d better start taking ozone as seriously as I do the amount of trans fats I consume or how bad this year’s flu bug is going to be.

In Texas our absolute dependence on the automobile, our heavy use of coal-burning utilities for air-conditioning, and our blazing summer temperatures make the ozone problem particularly acute. Though a recent Environmental Protection Agency survey indicated that ozone levels decreased here by about 7 percent from 1990 to 2003, we’re still home to Harris County, which has the worst ozone problem in the country, as well as three other counties—Dallas, Galveston, and El Paso—that are ranked among the worst twelve for overall air quality. (Another EPA study found that among 37 states, Texas had the most hospital admissions, emergency room visits, and asthma attacks due to ozone.) And our poorly regulated utility plants, which lead the nation in emissions of carbon dioxide and ozone precursors such as nitrogen oxides, make air pollution more than just an urban problem. “You’d be shocked at the amount of smog in rural counties,” Texas Sierra Club official Neil Carman told me recently. “Some of it is because the stuff is radiating out from the cities, but a lot of it is that utility plants are located in the country.”

So while ozone levels may have come down slightly, the big picture is that things are getting worse. According to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, in 1997 Dallas had 14 days “in exceedance” of EPA ozone standards over an eight-hour period; by last year the number had more than doubled to 32. Houston had 32 such days in 1997, 52 in 2005.

The nose knows—and so do the eyes and the lungs. It’s taken me a while, but I’ve also realized that the health effects of ozone are not hypochondriacal hysteria. Even if your system is generally tolerant of allergens and chemical emissions (mine is), expose yourself to enough ozone and you’ll eventually feel it. At best, it makes your eyes itch and your nose run and can make you sick to your stomach. At worst, it can reduce your lung capacity by as much as 10 percent and is a suspect player in causing heart attacks and lung cancer. Small wonder that a review of two seminal studies on the effects of ozone and fine particulate matter, the Harvard Six Cities Study and an American Cancer Society inquiry, documented a 28 percent higher chance of premature death among residents of the most air-polluted U.S. cities. “For most people, ozone is more difficult than secondhand smoke to avoid,” said Lisa Doggett, an Austin family doctor active in anti–air pollution efforts through Physicians for Social Responsibility. “Its pervasiveness makes it particularly concerning.”

So what—cough, cough—do we do? Believe me, I have called—and will continue to call—my congressman. But the history of environmental regulation is a little reminiscent of a drunk walking up the stairs: up one, down two. (How do you think our major cities remain in violation of federal ozone standards?) Really, it’s about taking matters into your own hands. First, avoid the junk: Exercise early in the morning or late in the evening, before or after the sun has had a chance to cook up a new batch of ozone. At that, don’t stay out more than an hour, and on particularly noxious days, head for the gym. Do your part by carpooling, using HOV lanes, and not mowing the lawn on bad ozone days. It may seem trifling, but it all adds up.

Next, make ozone levels as much a part of your life as the weather. Follow those air-quality numbers your TV weatherman rattles off each night: A rating of 0–50 (green) indicates it’s safe to be outdoors; 50–100 (yellow) means it might be bothersome to especially sensitive people, children with asthma, or adults with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; at 101–150 (orange), even moderately sensitive people should limit outdoor activity; and over 150 (red) means really dangerous air. You can also get on the Internet. I’ve taken to checking on my region’s air by visiting scorecard.org, a terrific Web site for updates on what exactly I’m breathing and what, if anything, is being done about it. (For a few other great pollution-monitoring sites, see “Surfing for Air Quality.”) There was a time when even I would have considered this being obsessively green, but now it’s just one more thing I do to stay healthy, like checking my blood pressure. Because the final thing I’ve learned is that there is no being too alarmist about what I breathe. According to a recent joint study by the EPA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, despite our best efforts to measure and regulate it, there really is no “safe” level of ozone.

Surfing for Air Quality: What you’re breathing on the Web.
The Internet is a great source of information about ozone and other air pollutants, if you know where to look. Aside from my favorite site, scorecard.org, there are two in particular—cleartheair.org and airnow.gov—that will tell you pretty much anything you need to know about air pollution in your county: whether it’s going up or down, how it compares with other counties’ and states’, what the Legislature or the governor is doing about it. Also, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has a link off its main Web page that can show you pollution in your area in real time: tceq.state.tx.us/cgi-bin/compliance/monops/select_curlev.