Ozone and Your Health
Ozone, the main ingredient of smog, presents a serious air quality problem in many parts of the United States. Even at low levels, ozone can cause health effects by inflaming the lining of the lungs.Frequently Asked Questions:
• Who is at risk?
• How can ground-level ozone affect your health?
• How does ground-level ozone affect natural resources?
What is ozone?
Ozone is a colorless gas found in the air we breathe. Ozone can be beneficial or harmful for people, depending where it occurs. Beneficial ozone is present naturally in the Earth’s upper atmosphere, 10–30 miles above the Earth’s surface. This natural ozone shields us from the sun’s ultraviolet rays. Harmful ozone forms near ground level when air pollutants (emitted by sources such as cars, power plants, and chemical plants) react chemically in the presence of sunlight. Ozone pollution is more likely to form during warmer months. This is when the weather conditions normally needed to form ground-level ozone—lots of sun—occur
Who is at risk?
When ozone levels are very high, everyone should be concerned about ozone exposure. In general, as concentrations of ground-level ozone increase, both the number of people affected and the seriousness of the health effects increase. More people with lung disease visit doctors or emergency rooms and are admitted to the hospital when ground-level ozone concentrations are high. Several groups of people are particularly sensitive to ozone, especially when they are active outdoors. This is because ozone levels are higher outdoors, and physical activity causes faster and deeper breathing, drawing more ozone into the body.
People particularly sensitive to ozone include:
- People with lung diseases, such as asthma, chronic bronchitis, and emphysema will generally experience more serious health effects at lower ozone levels.
- Children are at higher risk from ozone exposure because they often play outdoors in summer when ozone levels are higher. They are more likely to have asthma, which may be aggravated by ozone exposure. Their lungs are still developing.
- Older adults may be more affected by ozone exposure, possibly because they are more likely to have pre-existing lung disease.
- Active people of all ages who exercise or work vigorously outdoors have higher exposure to ozone than people who are less active.
- Some healthy people may experience health effects at lower ozone levels than the average person even though they have none of the risk factors listed above. There may be a genetic basis for this increased sensitivity.
How can ground-level ozone affect your health?
Ozone can irritate your respiratory system, when this happens, you may cough, feel irritation or soreness in your throat, or experience chest tightness or pain when taking a deep breath. Reduced lung function can make it more difficult for you to breathe as deeply and vigorously as you normally would, especially when exercising. You may notice that breathing starts to feel uncomfortable and that you are taking more rapid and shallow breaths than normal if you are affected by ground-level ozone.
How does ground-level ozone affect natural resources?
Some plants are actually sensitive to ozone at levels well under the national health standards. Lichens, mosses, and liverworts often are most sensitive within an ecosystem and can serve as early indicators of air pollution effects. Plants such as trees, shrubs, and herbaceous species can also be injured by ozone which damages leaves and needles and weakens the plants ability to withstand disease and insect infestations.