Ozone Pollution Can Cause Respiratory Symptoms

Effects of “bad” Ozone on Lung Health

Dear Dr. Mahler: I live in the Los Angeles area and am concerned about air pollution, especially ozone levels in the air. I was diagnosed with COPD about 4 years ago, and did pretty good until this past winter. It seemed like I had one chest infection after the other and received several different antibiotics. My breathing has not recovered completely. I notice that when there are air quality alerts this summer, I need to stay inside and “lay low.” What can you tell me about ozone? Sally from Anaheim, CA  Dear Sally, Ozone is one of six common air pollutants. The other pollutants are: particulate matter; carbon monoxide; lead; sulfur dioxide; and nitrogen oxide.
Smog in Los Angeles

Smog in Los Angeles

Ozone is a gas that occurs in the Earth’s upper atmosphere and at ground level. It extends about 6 – 30 miles in the upper atmosphere and is considered to be “good” because it protects life on earth from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays. It is a main ingredient of urban smog – a word that comes from a combination of smoke and fog.  
Formation of ozone

Formation of ozone

Ozone is created by chemical reactions between nitrogen oxide (NOx) and volatile orgnic compounds (VOC) in the presence of sunlight. Emissions from industries and electric utilities, exhaust from cars and trucks, gasoline vapors, and chemical solvents are some of the major sources of NOx and VOC. How does “Bad” Ozone affect health? Breathing ozone can cause chest pain, coughing, throat irritation, and congestion. It can inflame the breathing tubes and worsen asthma and COPD, even causing a “flare-up” or exacerbation. Anyone who spends time outdoors in the summer may be affected, especially for those who work outdoors and for people exercising. What is being done? On October 1, 2015, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) strengthened the standard for ground-level ozone from 75 to 70 parts per billion in the air. Stricter controls on industry, electrical utilities, and vehicles can also help. Here is what you can do for your lung health. Check the air quality where you live. If the Air Quality Index (AQI) is forecast to be unhealthy, stay indoors and limit physical exertion outdoors. As ozone generally peaks in mid-afternoon to early evening, try to do shopping and run errands in the morning. Keep windows closed and use air conditioning and/or a fan to keep cool if it is hot outdoors. Do your best to reduce air pollution from cars, trucks, gas-powdered lawn and garden equipment, and other engines by keeping them properly tuned and maintained. Reduce driving, carpool if possible, use public transportation, and walk as much as possible.  I hope this information is helpful. Best wishes, Donald A. Mahler, M.D.    

Donald A. Mahler, M.D. is Emeritus Professor of Medicine at Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth in Hanover, New Hampshire. He works as a pulmonary physician at Valley Regional Hospital in Claremont, NH, where he is Director of Respiratory Services.