Knowing Your Air: A Conversation about Air Quality in Central Texas

The Air Quality Awareness Week sits over a picture of fluffy white clouds in a blue sky.

Headshot of Ramon Zarate, Air Quality Program Specialist, CAPCOG.Welcome to Air Quality Awareness Week 2024!  

This week, we spotlight the critical yet sometimes overlooked issue of air quality and its impact on our health and environment. We interviewed Ramon Zarate, an Air Quality Program Specialist at the Capital Area Council of Governments (CAPCOG), who shared his insights and expert advice on how we can breathe easier and live healthier. Read on to learn more about the state of our air in Central Texas, what contributes to poor air quality, and what we can all do to help.

How do we know that air quality matters?  

Air quality matters because air is an essential resource for humans, plants, and animals. Humans can survive three weeks without food, three days without water, but only about three minutes without air. It’s easy to forget how important air is when it’s plentiful and easy to breathe. Air pollution typically only catches our attention when it reaches high levels that very visibly impact our health. However, even moderate exposure to air pollution over an extended amount of time can cause a lot of problems.  


Do people who breathe clean air live longer?  

People who have access to cleaner air are less likely to develop health issues that people exposed to ozone and particulate matter (PM2.5) are more likely to experience. These health issues include:  

  • Premature death in people with heart or lung disease  
  • Nonfatal heart attacks  
  • Irregular heartbeat  
  • Aggravated asthma  
  • Decreased lung function  
  • Increased respiratory symptoms, such as irritation of the airways, coughing, or difficulty breathing.  

People with heart or lung diseases, children, older adults, and pregnant people are the most likely to be affected by particle pollution exposure.  


How is our air quality in Austin? How do I find out how the air quality is where I live?  

Ozone levels have gradually decreased over the past two decades in the Austin area due to air quality regulations set in place by the EPA, while PM2.5 levels have stayed relatively consistent. Both ozone and PM2.5 levels recently exceeded their respective EPA standards, and the Austin area is now considered out of compliance for both pollutants. This puts the Austin area at high risk of being designated nonattainment status by the EPA. You can “stay air aware” by checking your local Air Quality Index at, and signing up for ozone action day alerts.


Can you explain what particulate matter is and what our federal government did recently to strengthen protections to limit our exposure to it?  

Particulate matter is an air pollutant made up of a mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets found in the air. Most of these particles form in the atmosphere due to complex reactions of chemicals such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, and some are emitted directly from a source, such as construction sites, unpaved roads, fields, smokestacks, or fires.  

Particulate matter contains microscopic solids or liquid droplets that are so small that they can be inhaled and cause serious health problems. Some particles less than 10 micrometers in diameter can get deep into your lungs, and some may even get into your bloodstream. Of these, particles less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, also known as fine particles or PM2.5, pose the greatest health risk.  

The EPA recently strengthened the federal standard for annual PM2.5 from 12 micrograms per cubic meter to 9 micrograms per cubic meter. This strengthened standard will result in significant public health net benefits that could be as high as $46 billion in 2032.  


What can everyone do to help?  

There are several actions you can take to improve air quality in the region. One of the biggest contributors to PM2.5 and ozone is vehicle emissions from driving. You can drive less by:  

  • Using public transit, like buses, shuttles, and light rails  
  • Carpooling to reduce vehicles on the road, and using school pool resources to cut down on vehicles idling in school pick up lines  
  • Choosing to bike to your destination or walk  


Are there any other ways to get involved or volunteer?  

You can “stay air aware” by checking your local Air Quality Index at, and signing up for ozone action day alerts. You can also suggest areas to deploy low-cost PurpleAir sensors that track PM2.5 in real-time through our Be Air Smart program and our Purple Community Project initiative.  


Anything else you all want to add?  

Austin, Texas, is the largest city in the U.S. to have never violated a federal air quality standard. This is due to proactive work completed in the region to accelerate pollution reductions. The region, for the first time, will likely violate the new PM2.5 standard. It will take collaborative work across city boundaries and between public, private, and non-profits to reduce our pollution levels.  

Transportation and energy use are major sources of air pollution in our region, and while cleaner technologies are being introduced, we can take individual actions to reduce transportation and energy use-related emissions, help protect lives, and get Austin back in compliance with the new standard more quickly.