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St. Louis-area air quality alerts started earlier, may be more common this summer

Vehicles pass by the St. Louis Science Center and a sign, upper right, indicating Thursday's air quality is unhealthy for sensitive groups.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Vehicles pass by the St. Louis Science Center and a sign, upper right, indicating the next day's air quality is unhealthy for sensitive groups on Wednesday near Forest Park.

The National Weather Service in St. Louis expects air quality to worsen during the summer months.

Already, the Weather Service issued air quality alerts for the region every day this week, and another is expected Friday.

Susannah Fuchs, director of clean air at the American Lung Association in Missouri, said it’s uncommon to see poor air quality this early in the year, but ozone pollution continues to be a problem.

Fuchs said she’s talked to several people who were confused about seeing alerts on their phones.

“Outside it seems beautiful, it’s not humid, there’s a little breeze. It’s perfect,” she said. “How can it be a bad air day?”

Though haze is a common sign of pollution, it doesn’t need to be visible to indicate poor air quality, she said. On hot, sunny days with little wind, polluted air sinks to the ground and forms a stagnant air mass.

“That all cooks up to form ozone pollution,” Fuchs said.

The Lung Association in Missouri runs the Clean Air Partnership, an initiative that writes air quality alerts for the St. Louis area. On green and yellow days, most people are safe to spend time outdoors. On orange and red days, the alerts advise members of sensitive groups to avoid outdoor activities.

This includes young children, the elderly, people who work outdoors and those with chronic respiratory ailments and heart disease. High ozone levels often trigger asthma attacks and impair lung function for such people.

Though the Clean Air Partnership disseminated alerts for many years, they remained largely unseen until this year, when the National Weather Service in St. Louis started to share them.

“We’ve just kind of taken it and gone a little bit more public with it utilizing some of the resources that we’ve already had for things like severe thunderstorm warnings," said meteorologist Jared Maples.

The change ensures the alerts will appear on weather apps.

Maples said the goal of the alerts is to encourage people to protect their health.

Others hope it will help residents to take steps to lower ozone pollution, like turning off idling cars and buying gas in the evening as opposed to the morning.

“We are in nonattainment for the 2015 Ozone Standard,” said Carol Lawrence, manager of environmental services at East-West Gateway, a regional agency that helps monitor and assess air quality. Lawrence said the alerts are part of a regional effort to reach attainment.

But Fuchs said persuading people to heed air quality warnings is difficult, especially for those who don’t fall into sensitive groups.

“You can’t see ozone. That makes it much harder,” she said. “But the truth is that if it’s an orange day, you don’t want to have that effect on your lungs, short term or long term.”

Lilley Halloran was a Summer '23 News Intern at St. Louis Public Radio. She is studying Journalism and Constitutional Democracy at the University of Missouri.