Ozone Pollution

Ozone is a colorless gas composed of three atoms of oxygen. Ozone forms both in the Earth's upper atmosphere and at the surface. Where ozone forms determines whether it is helpful or harmful to your well-being.

Good ozone naturally forms in a layer about 10 - 30 miles (16 - 48 km) above Earth's surface. This protective layer shields us from the sun's harmful ultraviolet rays. Without this layer, we would all be blinded and sunburned. Unfortunately, human-created chemicals are destroying this beneficial layer of ozone. Over the South Pole in springtime, the ozone loss is so severe that an "Ozone Hole" forms, letting significant amounts of harmful ultraviolet light reach the surface. A smaller Ozone Hole sometimes occurs over the northern polar regions.

Bad ozone forms near Earth's surface when the ultraviolet light in sunlight triggers a chemical reaction with "precursor pollutants" emitted by cars, power plants, and industrial sources. These precursor pollutants consist of nitrogen oxides (NOx) and volatile organic hydrocarbons (VOC). Ozone near ground level is a harmful pollutant. Ozone levels are carefully monitored during the summer months when the weather conditions are perfect for it to form. Sunshine, hot temperatures, and high emissions of NOx and VOC pollutants lead to high levels of ozone.

An Ozone Action Day is declared when weather conditions are likely to combine with pollution emissions to form high concentrations of ground-level ozone that may cause harmful health effects. People and businesses should take action to reduce emissions of ozone-causing pollutants.

The Environmental Protection Agency uses its Air Quality Index to provide general information to the public about air quality and associated health effects. An Air Quality Index (AQI) of 100 for any pollutant corresponds to the level needed to violate the federal health standard for that pollutant. For ozone, an AQI of 100 corresponds to 0.08 parts per million (ppm) over an 8-hour period -- the current federal standard. Over half of the U.S. population lives in areas where the AQI exceeds 100 and violates the federal health standard at least once per year. Some metropolitan cities have severe air pollution problems, and can see ozone AQI values in the 200s or even 300s.

Ozone Health Hazards

EPA Index Health Concern Conditions
0 to 50 Good The air quality for your community is considered satisfactory and air pollution poses little or no risk.
51 to 100 Moderate Air quality is acceptable; however, people who are unusually sensitive to ozone may experience respiratory symptoms.
101 to 150 Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups Children and adults who are active outdoors and people with respiratory disease are at greater risk from exposure to ozone. When values are between this range members of sensitive groups may experience health effects. The general public is not likely to be affected when ozone levels are in this range.
151 to 200 Unhealthy Everyone may begin to experience health effects. Members of sensitive groups may experience more serious health effects.
201 to 300 Very Unhealthy Ozone levels between 201 and 300 trigger a health alert, meaning everyone may experience more serious health effects.
301 to 500 Hazardous Ozone values over 300 trigger health warnings of emergency conditions. The entire population is more likely to be affected. Hazardous ozone values are extremely rare in the U.S.

Ozone Standards

In 2008, the EPA under the Bush administration chose to set the ozone air quality standard at 0.075 parts per million. The previous standard, set in 1997, was 0.08 ppm. Because ozone is measured out to three decimal places, the standard effectively became 0.084 ppm as a result of rounding. The 2008 standard was done in defiance of the recommendations of the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, which found that the standard should be set between 0.06 and 0.07 ppm, and anything higher could not be scientifically justified. Since a unanimous 2001 Supreme Court decision upheld EPA's long-standing interpretation that it must set these standards based solely on public health considerations without consideration of the economic costs, the 2008 standards were set not only in defiance of the best science available, but also in defiance of the law. The ozone standard in the European Union is set at 0.06 ppm.

According to the EPA, the 0.075 ppm standard would prevent 420 - 2,300 premature deaths each year, and save $4 - $17 billion per year in health care and other costs. The costs to business would be $7.6 - $8.8 billion. The stricter standard of 0.060 ppm would prevent 4,000 - 12,000 premature deaths, and save $35 - $100 billion per year. The estimated costs to businesses would be $52 - $90 billion pre year.

Ozone Health Effects

High ozone levels have been linked to increases in the severity of asthma attacks and other respiratory health problems, especially for children and the elderly.

Even healthy people will experience irritation of the respiratory system. Ozone causes constriction of the bronchial airways such as coughing, sore throat, ear aches, wheezing, chest discomfort, uncomfortable breathing. People who exercise or work outdoors may experience reduced exercise capacity. Those individuals with heart and lung disease react more severely to air pollution. People with asthma have more asthma attacks when ozone levels are high. Ozone makes individuals become more sensitive to allergens and can also be involved in the development of asthma. Ozone weakens the immune system and facilitates the development of lung infections. Thus ozone can inflame and damage the lung tissue.

Children are most at risk from exposure to ozone:
The average adult breathes 13,000 liters of air per day. Children breathe even more air per pound of body weight than adults. Because children's respiratory systems are still developing, they are more susceptible than adults to environmental threats. Ground-level ozone is a summertime problem, and children are at risk when they are outside playing and exercising during the summer months at summer camps, playgrounds, neighborhood parks and in backyards.

Asthmatics and Asthmatic Children:
Asthma is a growing threat to children and adults. Children make up 25 percent of the population and comprise 40 percent of the asthma cases. Fourteen Americans die every day from asthma, a rate three times greater than just 20 years ago. African-Americans die at a rate six times that of Caucasians. For asthmatics having an attack, the pathways of the lungs become so narrow that breathing becomes akin to sucking a thick milk shake through a straw. Ozone can aggravate asthma, causing more asthma attacks, increased use of medication, more medical treatment and more visits to hospital emergency clinics.

Healthy Adults:
Even moderately exercising healthy adults can experience 15 to over 20 percent reductions in lung function from exposure to low levels of ozone over several hours. Damage to lung tissue may be caused by repeated exposures to ozone -- something like repeated sunburns of the lungs -- and this could result in a reduced quality of life as people age. Results of animal studies indicate that repeated exposure to high levels of ozone for several months or more can produce permanent structural damage in the lungs. Among those most at risk to ozone are people who are outdoors and moderately exercising during the summer months. This includes construction workers and other outdoor workers.

For detailed information about real-time pollution levels, visit the EPA website.