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Air Quality in Tucson, Arizona  


13 Air Quality Concerns in Tucson

General air problems in the Tucson basin are:

1.      Very hot weather lasting from mid May to October.  (You will have to have cooling and stay inside most, if not all, of that time.)

2.      Ozone – created from air pollution and sun – can be high in the summer.  It is worse in the evenings (when you want to go out because it is cooler) and at the higher elevations (where you want to be, above the other pollutants).

3.      Air inversions in winter hold the air pollution down in the basin and can last for days.

4.      Dust – There are many unpaved roads in the Tucson basin.  Traffic speed laws are not enforced and a huge amount of dust is kicked up by a single car going 50 mph on a dirt road.  Multiply that by thousands and add spring or monsoon winds and there is definitely a dust problem,

5.      Valley Fever – Valley fever is a disease that is transmitted by dust. It is a fungus that affects the lungs and can affect bones and other organs.  Most people get it, some portion are permanently affected.  No one should go to the desert without first understanding the risks of Valley Fever.

6.      Particulates and chemicals from the mines are a problem in those areas downwind or near the mines (notably Green Valley).  At the current time (2003) the nearest copper smelter is about 100 miles away.  Since 1992  the smelters in Arizona have been in compliance with Federal regulations and Sulfur Dioxide is has not been noticeable in Tucson basin air since that time, smelters below the border are not controlled.

7.      Molds and Pollens – there are molds in Tucson.  When water is added to the desert, as in an urban environment, mold grows.  “Swamp” coolers are used by the majority of the households in Tucson.   These coolers are essentially air being cooled by running over water.  When not kept clean molds grow in them.  In the summer the low lying areas are moldy.  Flat roofs often leak, leading to mold growth in the structure.  Pollens are present both from native flora and from landscaping trees introduced to the area.  Tucson Pollen Calendar  The daily pollen, mold and dust counts can be seen on channel 9 (KGUN) news at 5:00 and 6:00.

8.      New Construction.  New development is rampant in Pima County.  Zoning is constantly being redone to allow for infill of higher density housing.  Desert protection and green belt laws are consistently put aside for the benefit of new development. 

9.      Traffic – Tucson, like all other US cities, has traffic problems.  There are no cross-town freeways, so the arterial roads are extremely busy, especially during the winter when the Snowbirds bring up the population.  Roads are basically in a grid pattern, with an artery every one to two miles in each direction.  Therefore it is very difficult to locate the recommended one mile from a major artery.  Trucks from Mexico do not have to pass any air pollution standards and U.S. Highway 19 to U.S. 10 and U.S. 10 in both directions are major routes for transporting produce and products from the machinadoras  and farms in Mexico into the US.  A report of traffic volume on the main Tucson streets was done in 1998 and can be seen at Traffic Peak Count. 

10. Airplanes.  The Tucson Airport and the Davis Monthan Air Base are located in the Tucson Basin.  Heavy air traffic is normal anywhere NW and SE of these airports.  Air traffic can get heavy during times of national military alerts.  There is also a military airport in the Marana area.  Davis Monthan Air Base stores old military airplanes and sometimes a constant stream of outdated planes will fly over the city for weeks.  The drop down pollution from airplanes – especially military planes is very toxic.

      Flight paths over Tucson.

11.  Wood Smoke – during the winter there is wood smoke in Tucson.  Some residents burn wood gathered from the nearby forests for their heating source (about 10%), many burn wood and trash in little patio “chimineras” in the evening.  Summer wildfires and controlled burning are common in the surrounding mountains. 

12. Hot Tar – Tar is used both to chip and tar roads and to roof houses.  Most homes have flat roofs and these must be repaired and replaced frequently.  Driveways, parking lots and roads are repaired by using hot tar with a layer of gravel on top.   As the heat breaks down the roads quickly, this is an ongoing process. 

13. Pesticides  Pesticides are heavily used in both structures and outdoor areas.  Subterranean termites are common and it is difficult to find housing that has not been recently pesticided for termites.  Many home and business owners have their buildings pesticided on a regular basis to control for nuisance insects.  Lawn spraying is not very common as there are not many lawns.  To date Pima county does not  do aerial spraying for mosquitoes or med fly.  See Beyond Pesticides - Arizona for news and events  regarding pesticides in Arizona.


While Tucson is definitely not a haven for those with MCS it is better from an air quality point of view than the larger metropolitan areas such as Phoenix or Los Angeles. The sunny, hot and dry climate can improve some conditions.  The specific problems listed above can be greatly controlled by careful selection of the location of your home.  But, these devils should be known before deciding to trade them for those you are currently living with.


This article was written by Cheryl Stewart and the conclusions herein are hers alone.


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