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Utah scientists launch major study of summertime ozone pollution

SALT LAKE CITY — In case people have forgotten, that familiar ozone haze will be dropping by this summer.

And though most people often ignore it, researchers know the stuff can be as hazardous as wintertime pollution — depending on where people are at the time.

"It's an oxidant, so it oxidizes your system," said Utah State University pollution researcher Randy Martin. "If you're ever in an area with high ozone, you'll actually feel it stinging your throat, stinging your eyes."

As they did last season, researchers at Utah State University, Weber State University, the University of Utah and the Utah Department of Environmental Quality will continue collecting data. Aboard TRAX, drones, balloons, research vehicles and even KSL's Chopper 5 — monitors will be tracking where and how ozone moves around the Wasatch Front and especially over the Great Salt Lake.

When teams at the U. recently installed the sensors on Chopper 5, they said this could be the only study we know of where a news helicopter is monitoring pollution on a regular basis.

"We do see ozone sloshing around the Wasatch Front, and now it's time to figure out why it's doing that," Martin said. "The ozone standard was just lowered, which means we expect there will be more breaches coming this summer. Depending on whether it's a hot dry summer or a wet season, we could exceed the standard more than a dozen times."

Ozone pollution follows a unique path. Sunlight transforms compounds that are already in the air into a complex series of chemical reactions. Those reactions go on to form ozone. It isn't emitted from anywhere, it's formed in the atmosphere from a combination of oxides of nitrogen, hydrocarbons and sunlight.

It not only affects the chemistry in our bodies but also in plants. A plant will breathe that into its stomata. It starts oxidizing the areas around the stomatas of the plant. High levels can create brown or white spots on the leaf, depending on what kind of plant it is, and ozone can stunt the plant's growth.

Because of minimum state funding, university researchers have been dishing into their own pockets for these studies. "All of the researchers from all the universities put in a lot of our own funding where we could find funding," Martin said.

With the risk of breaching pollution levels numerous times this season, Martin said we simply must know more about the complexity of what happens in our air and then start working on ways to do something about it.

"We have to be willing to put in the effort to make those changes," he said. "Just because it's difficult does not mean that we shouldn't fix it."