Harris County and nine other Texas counties don’t meet the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s new national air quality standards for fine particulate matter, a pollutant that federal officials said can have dangerous and costly health effects.

According to the EPA, the national air quality data only reflects information from the 119 U.S. counties pollution levels are collected by the EPA’s monitoring stations, which doesn’t include Fort Bend County.

Texas Commission on Environmental Quality officials said Fort Bend County meets the EPA’s previous standards for this type of pollution, but environmental experts said air pollution is still an issue across the Greater Houston area.

Grace Lewis, senior health scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, said Harris County’s nonattainment status could affect the region if it doesn’t meet standards by the 2032 deadline.

“Overall, if we are not meeting the Clean Air Act standards for particle pollution for the region, that would put our whole region [in nonattainment]—not just Harris County, but typically it’s the eight-county area that is not going to be designated as being in attainment with the Clean Air Act standards,” she said.

Two-minute impact

The EPA’s new standards announced Feb. 7 require no more than 9 micrograms per cubic meter level of fine particulate matter—lower than the previous 12 micrograms. The pollutant is emitted by power plants, vehicles and industrial facilities.

Based on EPA air quality data spanning 2020-22, Harris County air was measured to have roughly 11.4 micrograms per cubic meter annually. However, the TCEQ and EPA don’t have air monitors in Fort Bend County, so similar particulate information isn’t available, a TCEQ spokesperson said in an email.

In a 2023 health disparities annual report released by the Harris County Public Health department, officials said the conditions of where people live and work can have significant effects on their health and overall quality of life. Air pollution also impacts residents’ health care costs, according to researchers with Air Alliance Houston.

In AAH’s December 2023 report, researchers said emissions from 47 industrial facilities in eastern Harris County cost the community more than $313 million annually in asthma-related medical expenses. Harris County is inundated with multiple sources of fine particulate matter, said Inyang Uwak, AAH’s research and policy director.

“What makes this particle very dangerous to health is when you inhale the [tiny] particles, it can easily pass through all the protections in your respiratory tract,” Uwak said.

Terms to know

This is how Air Alliance Houston defines the following pollutants:
  • Fine particulate matter (PM2.5): a mix of particles, such as dust, dirt, soot and smoke emitted by industrial sources, vehicles, construction sites, fires or unpaved roads
  • Volatile organic compounds (VOC): highly reactive •carbon compounds released by vehicle exhaust, refineries and other industrial sources
  • Nitrogen oxides (NOx): produced from fossil fuel-burnin•g sources, such as power plants and vehicles
The specifics

A significant amount of air pollution in Harris County stems from petroleum refineries, power plants, chemical plants and manufacturing facilities, according to AAH’s report.

Large industrial sources are also the largest contributor of emissions in Fort Bend County, according to 2020 emission data from the TCEQ. The data comes from reports from large, industrial sources and TCEQ-developed emission calculations and studies, the TCEQ spokesperson said.

Additionally, the eight-county Houston-Galveston-Brazoria region—which Fort Bend County is part of—did not meet the eight-hour ozone National Ambient Air Quality Standards in 2008 and 2015, the spokesperson said. The TCEQ is set to adopt on April 24 the latest state implementation plan and rule revisions to address nonattainment areas.

Lewis said more state- and federally regulated air monitors are needed regionally.

“When we don’t have air monitors in certain parts of the region, we have blind spots,” Lewis said.
Zooming in

The lack of state- and federally regulated air monitors hasn’t stopped environmental advocacy groups and other local entities from measuring pollutants with independent air sensors.

Harris County Pollution Control has had one sensor in Katy Park’s field since March 2022 that tracks two types of particulate matter and volatile organic compounds. A HCPC official said the sensors were placed in areas with concrete batch plants; the county currently has 147 concrete batch plants.

Additionally, air quality sensor seller PurpleAir collects fine particulate matter data from several Katy-area monitors.
What’s next

Houston-Galveston Area Council officials are working with the EPA on a 13-county climate action plan, which will develop programs and policies over the next three years to reduce the region’s pollution, emissions and greenhouse gasses.

The H-GAC was among entities chosen by the EPA in September to receive a $1 million federal grant for the plan. The EPA received the final plan March 1.

On March 8, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton filed a lawsuit against President Joe Biden’s administration in efforts to block the EPA’s new federal air quality standards. Paxton said in a news release he believes the standards aren’t based on sound science and will impose economic harm on Texas.

Harris County commissioners agreed March 26 to ​​intervene in the lawsuit in support of the EPA.