Higher pollution levels from 2008 to 2011 drove more people to Sublette County clinics and doctors, a new study shows.
Data released Thursday by the Wyoming Department of Health link elevated levels of ozone, a toxic pollutant, to increased visits to physicians, especially for respiratory complaints.
The area has for years seen higher levels of ozone, largely as a result of natural gas drilling activity.
The study, which compared ozone data collected by the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality to patient data collected in the county, showed that for every 10 parts per billion ozone rose, respiratory-based visits to doctors rose 3 percent.
The national limit for ozone is 75 parts per billion.
Kerry Pride, a Centers for Disease Control epidemiologist assigned to the Wyoming Department of Health, said the study’s results are in line with what the department expected. Similar studies around the country and internationally have indicated similar trends.
The department isn’t expected to make any recommendations based on the study.
Increased exposure to elevated ozone can lead to difficulty breathing deeply, coughing or scratchy throats, increased susceptibility to infections and other respiratory ailments.
Pride said the study shows that ozone can be harmful to anyone, regardless of location.
“Ozone is ozone,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if it occurs in a rural or urban place; it can cause health effects.”
Pollution has been a lingering problem in western Wyoming, especially in the Upper Green River Basin.
In 2012, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ruled that ozone levels there had been too consistently high for too long, largely a result of natural gas drilling.
The area’s bowl-like shape occasionally helps trap the pollutant inside the basin, compounding the pollution. Such conditions usually only occur a few times per year, primarily in late winter.
The state’s Department of Environmental Quality has taken steps to reduce the pollution, which must be negated by 2015. The agency in March rolled out its full plan to address the problem, including new forms of pollution monitoring and tests to come.
Pride said she hopes anyone with pre-existing breathing or pulmonary problems will take elevated ozone levels seriously.
“We need to be aware that if you are sensitive to maybe take a little more awareness,” she said.
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