When you inhale ozone, it travels throughout your respiratory tract. Because ozone is very corrosive, it damages the bronchioles and alveoli in your lungs, air sacs that are important for gas exchange (see How Your Lungs Work for details). Repeated exposure to ozone can inflame lung tissues and cause respiratory infections.
Ozone exposure can aggravate existing respiratory conditions such as asthma, reduce your lung function and capacity for exercise and cause chest pains and coughing. Young children, adults who are active outdoors and people with respiratory diseases are most susceptible to the high levels of ozone encountered during the summer.
In addition to effects on humans, the corrosive nature of ozone can damage plants and trees. High levels of ozone can destroy agricultural crops and forest vegetation.
Photo courtesy NARA, photographer Gene Daniels/U.S. EPA
Ozone-damaged plant (left) and normal plant (right)
Avoiding Ozone Exposure
To protect yourself from ozone exposure, you should be aware of the Air Quality Index (AQI) in your area everyday -- you can usually find it in the newspaper or on a morning weather forecast on TV or radio. You should also be familiar with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) guide for ozone-alert values.
What do the numbers in the AQI mean? The AQI measures concentrations of five air pollutants: ozone, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide. The EPA has chosen these pollutants as criteria pollutants, but these are not all of the pollutants in the air. These concentrations are compared to a standard set out in federal law. An index value of 100 means that all of the criteria pollutants are at the maximum level that is considered safe for the majority of the population -- a yellow alert on the chart below. Numbers above 100 indicate higher concentrations and therefore a greater risk to most individuals.
|Air Quality Index||Color||Air Quality||Prediction|
|0 to 50||Green||Good||No health impacts are expected.|
|51 to 100||Yellow||Moderate||Unusually sensitive people should limit prolonged outdoor activity.|
|101 to 150||Orange||Unhealthy for sensitive groups||Active people and those with respiratory disease should limit prolonged outdoor activity.|
|151 to 200||Red||Unhealthy||Active people and those with respiratory disease should avoid prolonged outdoor activity; all others should limit prolonged outdoor activity.|
|201 to 300||Purple||Very unhealthy||Active people and those with respiratory disease should avoid all outdoor activity; all others should limit outdoor activity.|
To reduce your exposure to ozone, you should avoid exercising during afternoon and early evening hours in the summer.
Make Your Own Ozone Detector
You can make ozone test strips to detect and monitor ozone levels in your own backyard or around your school. You will need:
Reducing Ozone Pollution
There are several ways you can help to decrease ozone pollution:
- Limit using your automobile during afternoon and early evening hours in the late spring, summer and early fall.
- Do not use gasoline-powered lawn equipment during these times.
- Do not fuel your car during these times.
- Do not light fires or outdoor grills during these times.
- Keep the engine of your car or boat tuned.
- Make sure that your tires are properly inflated.
- Use environmentally safe paints, cleaning and office products (some of these chemicals are sources of VOC).
- Conserve energy.
Besides personal attempts to reduce ozone pollution, the EPA has initiated more stringent air-quality standards (such as the Clean Air Act and its modifications) to reduce air pollution. Compliance with these standards by industries, manufacturers and state and local governments has significantly reduced the levels of many common air pollutants.
Photo courtesy U.S. EPA
Changes in air-pollution emissions in the United States
Ozone concentration in the troposphere has also decreased in the past 10 years.
Photo courtesy U.S. EPA
Changes in ozone concentration in the United States (black line represents air-quality standard)
With continued conservation and reduction practices, adherence to ozone-pollution warnings, research and government regulation, ozone-pollution levels should continue to fall. Perhaps future generations will not be threatened by this environmental pollutant.
For more information on ozone pollution and related topics, check out the links on the next page.