UTAH (ABC4) — Utah is ramping up efforts to better understand the different factors that affect our air quality. With the approval of additional funding, the Utah Division of Air Quality will soon begin taking a closer look at “bad ozone.”  

The new funding will be available for the 2024 fiscal year beginning in July, and the Utah Division of Air Quality will be able to use it to set up six new ozone monitors across the Salt Lake Valley. It will also allow the division to conduct research in the Uinta Basin targeting winter ozone and pollution. 

“Ozone is an odorless, colorless gas made up of three oxygen molecules (O3) and is a natural part of the environment,” said representatives from the Utah Division of Air Quality. “It occurs both in the Earth’s upper atmosphere or stratosphere and at ground level in the lower atmosphere or troposphere.” 

There is both “good” and “bad” ozone.  

So, what is “good” ozone?

“Approximately 90 percent of atmospheric ozone is located in the stratosphere, which begins about six to ten miles above the Earth’s surface and extends upwards to about 31 miles,” said officials from the Utah Division of Air Quality. “Ozone in the stratosphere, known as the ‘ozone layer,’ occurs naturally and forms a protective barrier that prevents ultraviolet sunlight (UV-B) radiation from the sun from reaching the Earth’s surface and harming plant and animal life.” 

And what is “bad” ozone?

“The remaining 10 percent of atmospheric ozone is located in the troposphere, which extends from the surface of the Earth to the stratosphere,” said officials from the Utah Division of Air Quality. “Ozone in the troposphere is not emitted directly into the air as a gas but is formed through the photochemical reaction of nitrogen oxides (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds break apart in the presence of intense sunlight and recombine into new structures, creating ozone.” 

“Bad” ozone is obviously bad for our health. The new ozone monitors in Salt Lake Valley will measure ozone precursor levels to ensure the air quality in the area does not violate national standards.

But what are precursors? Experts say nitrogen oxide and volatile organic compounds are known as ozone precursor gases since their presence, concentration, and chemical reactivity both precede and lead to the production of ‘bad’ ozone.

Measuring these ozone precursors may help identify sources of these chemicals and why certain areas are affected differently.

The division’s director, Bryce Bird, says this information will be vital in improving air quality in Utah.

“We can target the reduction strategies to those who are most effective at actually producing results,” Bird said.    

Some may wonder whether human activities have an impact on bad ozone.

The Division of Air Quality explains that nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds are emitted by a wide of sources, including cars and trucks, industrial facilities, refineries, power plants, household products and cleaning supplies, and paints and solvents.

The long-range transport of ozone and precursor emissions from local, regional, and international sources can also impact air quality. Wildfires and urban emissions from as far away as Asia contribute to elevated summertime ozone concentrations. Reducing emissions from these sources is essential to reducing the formation of ground level ozone.

“We’re grateful for the focus the legislature put on air quality this year and those resources will help us to better understand air pollution and develop plans and strategies to reduce our impact from those pollutants,” Bird said.