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, released in February. The pollutant can have dangerous and costly health effects, federal officials said.

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,” 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 PM2.5 pollutant is emitted by power plants, vehicles and industrial facilities, officials said.

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 regulatory 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.

Jennifer Hadayia, executive director of nonprofit Air Alliance Houston, said air pollution affects “every system in the body” and can cause various adverse health effects, including respiratory and cardiac conditions, and can affect reproductive health, birth outcomes and mental health.

“It’s no exaggeration to say that having clean air to breathe is one of our most impactful public health interventions,” she 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

Large industrial sources are the largest contributor of emissions in Fort Bend County, according to 2020 emission data from the TCEQ.

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

Although Fort Bend County doesn’t have regulatory air monitors, David Garcia, director of the EPA’s Air and Radiation Division, said it’s “very likely” the county will also be deemed in nonattainment with the new PM2.5 standards due to its proximity to Harris County monitors and its contributions to air pollutants regionally.

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.

The EPA will identify counties not meeting the new PM2.5 standards in February 2026, then the TCEQ will submit a plan for how to meet standards, Garcia said.

Zooming in

The TCEQ once showed air monitor data from the University of Houston at Sugar Land, but the site was deactivated in 2018, TCEQ officials said. The monitor’s footprints are still in place if monitoring was ever restarted, said James Flynn III, earth and atmospheric sciences professor at the campus.

However, the lack of state- and federally regulated monitors hasn’t stopped advocacy groups, such as Fort Bend County Environmental, and others from installing independent air sensors.

Sensor seller PurpleAir collects particulate matter data from several local sensors. Data can be used to advocate for regulatory monitors, EPA officials said.

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.