New Insight into Houston's Ozone Problem

A series of air quality tests of the Houston region reveals some surprising factors in the region's ozone problem. As Houston Public Radio's Laurie Johnson reports, a new study shows unusually high levels of a certain chemical that generates ozone.

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Last summer a small red blimp was spotted, hovering over the University of Houston campus. That balloon was sent up over a period of several weeks to test certain air quality factors. UH Assistant Professor Barry Lefer says they also used an aircraft from Baylor University and a NOAH P-3 Hurricane Hunter that was modified to monitor air quality. Lefer says his team was surprised to discover abnormal levels of formaldehyde in the atmosphere.

"Most cities there's not very much direct emission of formaldehyde from industry. And it seems like we're seeing on occasion some high levels of formaldehyde that are coming from some industry in Houston. And the reason that's important is formaldehyde is very good at making ozone."

Lefer says the presence of so much formaldehyde could be a significant find because the TCEQ's air quality experts have long been trying to figure out why their ozone predictions and forecasting models aren't accurate. The computer systems used to forecast the region's future air quality haven't been taking formaldehyde into account because until now it was an unknown factor.

"We still have an ozone problem in Houston even though there have been significant reductions in the NOx emissions. And so it's kind of -- the state's sort of starting to run out of ideas on what's the best way to go from here. They actually are required by the EPA to file a plan on how they're going to solve this problem and they're really struggling to come up with a way to do that."

This particular study was commissioned by HARC, the Houston Advanced Research Center, to follow up on a comprehensive air study done by the TCEQ in 2000. The part that is still puzzling the researchers is why Houston's air contains so much formaldehyde.

"Already TCEQ and HARC have funded some groups to go and measure flares at the refineries to see if there's any formaldehyde. We're trying to figure out where this sort of new formaldehyde source is coming from."

The air study was a collaboration between eight universities. The researchers, who are a mix of professors and graduate students, are meeting in Houston this week to analyze the findings. They plan to submit recommendations to the state on how the data should affect the region's ozone compliance. Laurie Johnson, Houston Public Radio News.

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