Science Not Settled: Pollutants Down But Ozone Up In B.C.
    By Hank Campbell | April 10th 2012 02:00 PM | 13 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    The key air pollutants that combine to cause smog have dropped due to emissions regulations but baseline levels of ozone are continuing to creep up in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia.

    Scientists from the University of British Columbia, along with state and environmental groups, are trying to figure out why average levels of ground-level ozone haven't dropped with emissions over the last decade and have instead gone up. A new report from Metro Vancouver shows ambient levels of fine particulate matter, like sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and carbon monoxide, have declined by 20 to 60 percent since 2001, but ozone has continued to rise in that same period, up 20 percent. 

    There's good ozone and bad ozone, of course.  The protective layer of ozone in the stratosphere which protects us from the Sun's ultraviolet rays are why various pollutants, like the organic compound(1) known as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) that contain carbon, chlorine, and fluorine, have been banned. Ground-level ozone in the troposphere, unlike the stratospheric kind, is basically what we see as smog and is created from a combination of natural sources and nitrogen oxides in the air - it isn't emitted directly.  Industry emissions and gasoline use contribute to ground-level ozone and since they are driven by sunlight and heat, ground-level ozone is a greater problem during the summer months.
    British Columbia ozone is up but emissions are down
    Ground-level ozone - smog - should be down if contributors are down.  Credit: Metro Vancouver

    All those drivers are down. Why isn't ozone?  Well, it is, at least compared to decades ago, when you couldn't see the mountains on a smoggy day. But it seems local efforts can only accomplish so much. 

    One thing that longer-term analysis of emissions problems of past decades, like the ozone layer and acid rain, can teach us is that there is no single magic bullet for the atmosphere and sometimes fixing problems in one area will lead to problems in another. Banning CFCs did not stop ground-level ozone and building a lot of batteries for electric cars will just bring back acid rain. Plus, new combustion cars of today are 90% cleaner than a car of 1970, though cars are still implicated in emissions concerns because there are more of them - banning them entirely would not actually solve anything because they are so clean now.  Methane, soot and ozone levels should continue to be an area of focus (like genetically engineering cows that burp less methane) (2) but governments have a tendency to instead focus on high-profile, scientifically meaningless theater like banning fireplaces and slapping huge fees on construction companies that don't buy a new backhoe when they have a perfectly good old one.  If you think the environmental cost of building a new piece of construction equipment is not greater and thus more harmful overall for Earth than the emissions of an existing old backhoe, then you deserve to breathe lousy air.

    The atmosphere is pretty complex and the reasons behind changes are only simplified when voters need to be convinced.  In the last meaningful page of the Metro Vancouver air quality report, before they tell us how awesome regulations are, they write
    These trends have been observed over the last twenty years even though concentrations of the nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds that create ground-level ozone have been decreasing. Work is ongoing to understand the reasons for this. In the mean time, reducing ozone concentrations in the Lower Fraser Valley remains a priority.
    In other words, they have no idea why all the regulations they say are awesome have not worked.  Don't get me wrong, more pollution is bad, less is good, and Metro Vancouver is to be applauded for clarity and honesty in admitting this is a puzzle.  We don't want to use honesty against them, but it would seem a pocket of emissions reductions don't make a big difference.

    The best guess for pollutants causing ozone is neighbors, obviously - like I said, ground-level ozone is created, not emitted.  Metro Vancouver is in the Fraser Valley Regional District and borders America. But it's not the USA this time since those emissions levels are also dramatically down there. It is more likely to be coming from across the Pacific, where no efforts at cutting pollution are being implemented seriously. Clearly any climate solution that only impacts America, Canada and western nations but exempts 'developing' nations like China, India and others in Asia is doomed to fail where it matters most - fixing problems in the atmosphere.

    Source: Caring for the Air - Metro Vancouver 2012
    Read more:Smog disconnect puzzles Metro air quality experts by Jeff Nagel,


    (1) Proving once again that anti-science people obsessed with 'organic' don't actually know what the word means, or they would know how silly they sound trying to claim some food is not organic.

    (2) Genetic modification of cows to burp less is not welcome by vegetarians, who like to claim meat is a global warming problem and not their cultural one, and certainly not welcome by the contingent that believes only natural modifications that occur randomly in nature are acceptable.


    Great chemical puzzle! I'll dig into this one soon to learn about the nuances.
    It shows that sometimes in our zeal to get policies enacted we simplify too much.  Ban X and Y will disappear.  That only works if there is one driver.  We have had similar blowback due to the War on Cancer. Blame China will work for a little while but someone at a meeting is eventually going to ask someone, 'do you guys actually know how smog is caused?' and car emissions will not be the easy answer.
    I've been studying this issue for over 10 years now and have a website devoted to information from sources like the EPA and the Center for Disease Control that is normally not seen in the mainstream media. What our local environmental agency in San Antonio has found, is that 80-90% of our recorded ozone on high ozone days, is from pollution that transported from other areas outside our city. Even more fascinating, is that nature can also be blamed for pollution that causes high ozone. Many trees and plants like Kudzu emit VOC's from terpenes during the summer.

    For more info please go to my website:

    William Carter, a research chemist from Riverside, has devoted a fair amount of time to ozone, specifically to how different volatile organic compounds(VOC's) have varying effects on O3 levels.

    It would be nice to have data including an array of VOC's and how their concentration has changed from 2001 to present in the Fraser valley. I'll keep looking...

    (Of course it's probably safe to assume that other conditions affecting smog such as sunlight and temperature  inversions have remained constant in the Fraser Valley. Otherwise, when those variables enter the picture, you get poor correlations between NOx and ozone for different cities.)
    "All those drivers are down. Why isn't ozone? Well, it is, at least compared to decades ago, when you couldn't see the mountains on a smoggy day. But it seems local efforts can only accomplish so much."
    Worth noting, ozone is a colorless gas, the haze that affects visibility is not due to ozone but primarily particles made up of oxides of nitrogen (brownish), elemental carbon from many sources including diesel exhaust (blackish) and sulfates (whiteish).

    "scientifically meaningless theater like banning fireplaces". In a region of very complex terrain like Vancouver, wood smoke can concentration in valleys and become a large fraction of fine particle concentrations, particularly on clear, calm days. "Burn bans" on these days can and do protect public health. Recall that wood burning is very inefficient combustion so that you end up with a lot of fine particles. These particles can not only damage your lung function, particularly children's growing lungs, but are able to pass into your bloodstream. High particle concentrations are therefore associated with increases in stroke and heart attacks.

    You make a fine point but the impact of fireplaces as a driver is meaningless.  On days when ozone is already really high due to the real drivers, telling people not to light a fire is just what I said - theater.  It has no real benefit to the air issue, any more than one snowflake causes an avalanche.

    You also need to be careful with an 'association'.  In early 20th century Colorado, a competitor in tourism could rightly claim that Colorado had more deaths from TB than any state in the nation - because people with TB were told to move there due to the air.  The high ozone days are also high heat and high humidity days and both exertion and general health is the strongest factor in heart attacks and strokes. Claiming fireplaces are associated with strokes is the same is saying they cause them. And that is simply not true.
    I can always trust that Hank Campbell will turn a relatively straightforward empirical result into a platform to grandstand his inane and irrelevant political proclamations, and invariably the readers of Science 2.0 always swallow his crap like little minnows in an enclosed and very small farm pond.

    So what is your answer to the puzzle?  Carbon dioxide, sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide are down but ozone is up but those were all limited because they would reduce ozone.  Is it not coming from somewhere else, as I said?  Is it magic?  You aren't making a lot of sense complaining that this is a political proclamation - you think I am part of Big Ozone or something?
    Gerhard Adam
    ...and I can always trust that some inane anonymous jerk will come along and bitch about it [without a shred of counter-evidence or alternative ideas].

    Note that even as a minnow, I can still feed on your plankton-like intellect.
    Mundus vult decipi
    What is the ratio of anonymous negative comments to that of anonymous positive ones?
    I wonder.
    Gerhard Adam
    Well, if n/p then as the number of positive comments increases, then we would expect overall the value to approach zero.  However as the number of positive comments decreases, then the overall negative approaches infinity.  No wonder it seems like such an onerous task .. :)
    Mundus vult decipi
    I think it's probably the same in the corporate world, any restaurant, etc, about 100:1. People are not inclined to say positive things - it's what they expect - but they respond negatively because it bothers them when it is not what they expect.  I get few hundred K readers a month so if I only get sniped 10 times...well, then I am not doing a very good job ridiculing sacred cows.

    Apparently Gerhard's hat is more controversial than I am!
    Gerhard Adam
    Well of course.  With the hat, people expect me to be limited to "y'all" and "shucks".
    Mundus vult decipi