Don't let ground-level ozone ruin your summer fun

a group of kayakers
Summer is definitely here. It’s hot, it’s sunny, it’s the time of year you want to be outside. With all that fun in the sun, though, can come a form of air pollution we’re definitely not excited about: ground-level ozone. 

Ecology keeps a close eye on ground-level ozone levels around Washington and issues advisories when levels rise to a point that could affect people’s health. Let’s talk about what ground-level ozone is, what it can do to your health, how you can help prevent it, and how to find out when levels are unhealthy.

Why should I care about ground-level ozone?

First, let’s distinguish the difference in ozone and ground-level ozone.

  • “Good” ozone forms naturally one to 30 miles above the Earth’s surface. This ozone layer protects life from the sun’s harmful rays.

  • “Bad” ozone forms at ground-level. It is the main ingredient of smog and can cause a plethora of health problems.

Today, we are going to talk about how ground-level ozone forms, the health problems it causes, and what to do about it.

How it forms

Unhealthy ozone forms when NOx and VOCs combine with sunlight.
Ground-level ozone is a gas created by a chemical reaction between nitrogen oxides (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the presence of sunlight. Vehicle and industrial emissions, gasoline vapors, chemical solvents, and natural sources emit NOx and VOCs that help form ground-level ozone. 

Obviously, urban areas will see higher amounts of ground-level ozone because they tend to have more air pollutants. But rural areas may not be spared from the health effects of it. Ground-level ozone takes time to form, and while it’s forming the wind can carry it far away. So, even if you live in the country, you can still be exposed to ground-level ozone.

What it can do to your health

Unhealthy amounts of ground-level ozone can affect everyone, but people with lung disease, children, older adults, and people who are physically active are especially sensitive. Ground-level ozone can:

  • Irritate your throat.
  • Cause coughing, wheezing, and painful breathing.
  • Inflame and permanently damage lung tissue.
  • Aggravate asthma, emphysema, and chronic bronchitis.
  • Increase the likelihood of pneumonia and bronchitis.

To protect your health, do less strenuous activities outdoors or stay inside until it cools down. If you experience serious symptoms, see your doctor.

How you can help reduce ground-level ozone

On hot days when ground-level ozone is expected to reach unhealthy levels, take these extra steps to help reduce air pollution:

  • Drive less. Combine errands or use public transportation.
  • Switch to a zero emissions vehicle, walk, or ride a bike.
  • Postpone travel until the weather cools when possible.
  • Don’t use lawnmowers or other small engines during heat spells.
  • Follow burn bans.
  • Don’t barbecue or use your fire pit while it’s hot out.
  • Don’t let your engine idle.
  • Refuel your vehicle in the early mornings.
  • Don’t paint or use aerosol sprays until temperatures cool off.

When it gets hot outside, keep an eye on Ecology’s Facebook page or Twitter account for air quality advisories or check Washington’s Air Quality Monitoring Network

To learn more about ground-level ozone and other air quality topics, visit Ecology’s website.