Ozone Pollution

It may be hard to imagine that pollution could be invisible, but ozone is. The most widespread pollutant in the U.S. is also one of the most dangerous.

Scientists have studied the effects of ozone on health for decades. Hundreds of research studies have confirmed that ozone harms people at levels currently found in the United States. In the last few years, we’ve learned that it can also be deadly.

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What Is Ozone?

Ozone (O3) is an extremely reactive gas molecule composed of three oxygen atoms. It is the primary ingredient of smog air pollution and is very harmful to breathe. Ozone attacks lung tissue by reacting chemically with it.

The ozone layer found high in the upper atmosphere (the stratosphere) shields us from much of the sun’s ultraviolet radiation. However, ozone air pollution at ground level where we can breathe it (in the troposphere) is harmful. It causes serious health problems.

Where Does Ozone Come From?

What you see coming out of the tailpipe on a car or a truck isn’t ozone, but the raw ingredients for making ozone. Ozone is formed by chemical reactions in the atmosphere from two raw gases that do come out of tailpipes, smokestacks and many other sources. These essential raw ingredients for ozone are nitrogen oxides (NOx) and hydrocarbons, also called volatile organic compounds (VOCs). They are produced primarily when fossil fuels like gasoline, oil or coal are burned or when some chemicals, like solvents, evaporate.

When NOx and VOCs come in contact with both heat and sunlight, they combine and form ozone smog. NOx is emitted from power plants, motor vehicles and other sources of high-heat combustion. VOCs are emitted from motor vehicles, chemical plants, refineries, factories, gas stations, paint and other sources. The formula for ozone is simple, and like any formula, the ingredients must all be present and in the right proportions to make the final product.

You may have wondered why “ozone action day” warnings are sometimes followed by recommendations to avoid activities such as mowing your lawn or refilling your gas tank during daylight hours. Lawn mower exhaust and gasoline vapors are VOCs that could turn into ozone in the heat and sun. Take away the sunlight and ozone doesn’t form, so refilling your gas tank after dark is better on high ozone days. Since we can’t control sunlight and heat, we must reduce the chemical raw ingredients if we want to reduce ozone.

Who is at risk from breathing ozone?

Five groups of people are especially vulnerable to the effects of breathing ozone:

  • children and teens;
  • anyone 65 and older;
  • people who work or exercise outdoors;
  • people with existing lung diseases, such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (also known as COPD, which includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis); and
  • “responders” who are otherwise healthy but for some reason react more strongly to ozone.21

The impact on your health can depend on many factors, however. For example, the risks would be greater if ozone levels are higher, if you are breathing faster because you’re working outdoors or if you spend more time outdoors.

Lifeguards in Galveston, Texas, provided evidence of the impact of even short-term exposure to ozone on healthy, active adults in a study published in 2008. Testing the breathing capacity of these outdoor workers several times a day, researchers found that many lifeguards had greater obstruction in their airways when ozone levels were high. Because of this research, Galveston became the first city in the nation to install an air quality warning flag system on the beach.22

How Ozone Pollution Harms Your Health

Breathing ozone can shorten your life. Two early studies published in 2004 found strong evidence of the deadly impact of ozone in cities across the U.S. and in Europe. Even on days when ozone levels were low, the researchers found that the risk of premature death increased with higher levels of ozone. They estimated that over 3,700 deaths annually in the U.S. could be attributed to a 10-parts-per-billion increase in ozone levels.23 Another study, published the same week, looked at 23 European cities and found similar effects on mortality from short-term exposure to ozone.24

Confirmation came in the summer of 2005. Three groups of researchers working independently reviewed and analyzed the research around deaths associated with short-term exposures to ozone. The three teams—at Harvard, Johns Hopkins and New York University—used different approaches but all came to similar conclusions. All three studies reported a small but robust association between daily ozone levels and increased deaths.25 Writing a commentary on these reviews, David Bates, MD, explained how these premature deaths could occur:

Ozone is capable of causing inflammation in the lung at lower concentrations than any other gas. Such an effect would be a hazard to anyone with heart failure and pulmonary congestion, and would worsen the function of anyone with advanced lung disease.”26

In 2008 a committee of the National Research Council, a division of the National Academy of Sciences, reviewed the evidence again and concluded that “short-term exposure to ambient ozone is likely to contribute to premature deaths.” They recommended that preventing early death be included in any future estimates of the benefits of reducing ozone.27

New research has begun to identify which groups face higher risk of death from ozone. A study published in 2010 examined records from ten cities in Italy and found women, diabetics and older adults to have a higher risk of premature death from high ozone.28

Ozone at levels currently in the U.S. causes immediate health problems. Many areas in the United States produce enough ground-level ozone during the summer months to cause health problems that can be felt right away. Immediate problems—in addition to increased risk of premature death—include:

  • shortness of breath;
  • chest pain when inhaling;
  • wheezing and coughing;
  • asthma attacks;
  • increased susceptibility to respiratory infections;
  • increased susceptibility to pulmonary inflammation; and
  • increased need for people with lung diseases, like asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), to receive medical treatment and to go to the hospital.29

Breathing ozone for longer periods can alter the lungs’ ability to function. Two studies published in 2005 explored ozone’s ability to reduce the lung’s ability to work efficiently, a term called “lung function.” Each study looked at otherwise healthy groups who were exposed to ozone for long periods: outdoor postal workers in Taiwan and college freshmen who were lifelong residents of Los Angeles or the San Francisco Bay area. Both studies found that the long exposure to elevated ozone levels had decreased their lung function.30

Inhaling ozone may affect the heart as well as the lungs. A 2006 study linked exposures to high ozone levels for as little as one hour to a particular type of cardiac arrhythmia that itself increases the risk of premature death and stroke.31 A French study found that exposure to elevated ozone levels for one to two days increased the risk of heart attacks for middle-aged adults without heart disease.32

New studies warn of serious effects from breathing ozone over longer periods. With more long-term data, scientists are finding that long-term exposure—that is, for periods longer than eight hours, including days, months or years—may increase the risk of early death. Examining the records from a long-term national database, researchers found a higher risk of death from respiratory diseases associated with increases in ozone.33 New York researchers looking at hospital records for children’s asthma found that the risk of admission to hospitals for asthma increased with chronic exposure to ozone. Younger children and children from low income families were more likely to need hospital admissions even during the same time periods than other children.34 California researchers digging into data from their long-term Southern California Children’s Health Study found that some children with certain genes were more likely to develop asthma as adolescents in response to the variations in ozone levels in their communities.35

Breathing other pollutants in the air may make your lungs more responsive to ozone—and breathing ozone may increase your body’s response to other pollutants. For example, research warns that breathing sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide—two pollutants common in the eastern U.S.—can make the lungs react more strongly than to just breathing ozone alone. Breathing ozone may also increase the response to allergens in people with allergies. A large study published in 2009 found that children were more likely to suffer from hay fever and respiratory allergies when ozone and PM2.5 levels were high.36

Even low levels of ozone may be deadly. A large study of 48 U.S. cities looked at the association between ozone and all-cause mortality during the summer months. Ozone concentrations by city in the summer months ranged from 16 percent to 80 percent lower than EPA currently considers safe. Researchers found that ozone at those lower levels was associated with deaths from cardiovascular disease, strokes, and respiratory causes.37

FACT: This year’s State of the Air report tells us that nearly four in 10 people (38.5%) in the United States live in counties that received an F for air quality because of unhealthy levels of ozone air pollution.

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