Last Monday was one of those lovely late-summer mornings that just begs a person to venture outside. Susana Hansen, a volunteer reader at her boy's School of the Woods in west Houston, tutored students at a picnic table under a deep blue sky.
When the reading sessions ended at 11 a.m., her six-year-old son, David, complained of a headache. She took him to the nurse for some Tylenol, and he returned to class. What they did not know was that the nation's smoggiest city was in the midst of its smoggiest day of the year.
An ozone-laden plume emanated from the Baytown area that morning and mixed with smog from other sources to create a health hazard for much of the region.
Between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m., ozone levels in Baytown more than doubled. The surge was most likely the result of an industrial release, says Neil Carman, the Clean Air Program director for the Lone Star chapter of the Sierra Club.
"This was a very suspicious event," Carman says. "Someone pooped in the air out there."
The noxious cloud drifted west by northwest. By 10 a.m., a monitoring station at Mae Drive in east Houston showed a five-fold increase in ozone. Within an hour, that same station recorded levels deemed unhealthy by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The air continued to worsen. Three of the area's monitors showed harmful levels of ozone at noon. By the next hour, six monitoring stations indicated health risks. Of those, the station at 7330 1/2 North Wayside recorded the single highest ozone reading for the entire state for the year 2000.
Ozone, smog's chief component and a cause of asthma attacks and cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, remained high throughout much of the area for most of the afternoon.
When Hansen picked up David from school at 3:30 p.m., the boy's headache had gotten worse. "He said, "My head hurts so bad, I think I'm going to throw up,' " Hansen recalls.
When she got home, Hansen logged onto the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission's Web site to check ozone levels. She was alarmed to see that the monitoring station nearest her son's school registered the highest reading for the entire region at that time. She realized that while David had been waiting for her, he had been outside inhaling heavy concentrations of the contaminant.
Hansen says she has no doubt about the cause of her son's headache. "I know it's the pollution. Whenever [ozone] numbers are high, he has a headache. He's my barometer for how bad the pollution is."
The TNRCC is investigating the September 18 spike in ozone, says agency spokesman Patrick Shaughnessy. Bryan Lambeth, the manager for the air pollution meteorology unit at TNRCC, surmises that industrial sources on the western end of the Ship Channel were "contributors" to the problem.
"But how much and what type is not known at this point," he says.
Carman of the Sierra Club doesn't hold out much hope that the TNRCC will find a culprit. He says the agency does a poor job regulating emissions, and pinpointing the source in an area rife with oil refineries and chemical plants would be like finding "a needle in a haystack."
The TNRCC has unveiled a plan to curb air pollution in the Houston region. It proposes a variety of actions such as cutting industrial emissions, banning heavy construction during certain hours, reducing speed limits to 55 mph and toughening tailpipe tests.
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Ironically, on the evening of the smoggiest day of the year, TNRCC officials met with an irate crowd in Lake Jackson to discuss the smog-reduction plan. Brazoria County residents blasted the proposal, complaining that they do not contribute significantly to the region's air woes and should not be subject to the harsh measures.
Failure to sufficiently clean the air by the year 2007 could mean a loss of federal transportation funds and heavy restrictions on new or expanding businesses for Houston and seven outlying counties.
But Hansen says she will not wait until 2007 to make changes for her son's well-being. She and her husband, an oil industry employee, are looking to relocate from the Houston area.
"It's mostly because we are afraid of the effects on [our son's] health," she says.