Ozone is a gas that occurs both in the Earth's upper atmosphere and at ground level.
Ozone can be "good" or "bad" for your health and the environment, depending on its
location in the atmosphere.
Ozone occurs in two layers of the atmosphere. The layer closest to the Earth's
surface is the troposphere. Here, ground-level or "bad" ozone is an air pollutant
that is harmful to breathe and it damages crops, trees and other vegetation.
It is a main ingredient of urban smog. The troposphere generally extends to a
level about 6 miles up, where it meets the second layer, the stratosphere.
The stratosphere or "good" ozone layer extends upward from about 6 to 30 miles
and protects life on Earth from the sun's harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays.
Ozone is produced naturally in the stratosphere. But this "good" ozone is
gradually being destroyed by man-made chemicals referred to as ozone-depleting
substances (ODS), including chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs),
halons, methyl bromide, carbon tetrachloride, and methyl chloroform. These
substances were formerly used and sometimes still are used in coolants, foaming agents,
fire extinguishers, solvents, pesticides, and aerosol propellants. Once released into
the air these ozone-depleting substances degrade very slowly. In fact, they can remain
intact for years as they move through the troposphere until they reach the stratosphere.
There they are broken down by the intensity of the sun's UV rays and release chlorine and
bromine molecules, which destroy the "good" ozone. Scientists estimate that one chlorine
atom can destroy 100,000 "good" ozone molecules.
Even though we have reduced or eliminated the use of many ODSs, their use in the past
can still affect the protective ozone layer. Research indicates that depletion of the
"good" ozone layer is being reduced worldwide. Thinning of the protective ozone layer
can be observed using satellite measurements, particularly over the Polar Regions.
Ozone depletion can cause increased amounts of UV radiation to reach the Earth which
can lead to more cases of skin cancer, cataracts, and impaired immune systems. Overexposure
to UV is believed to be contributing to the increase in melanoma, the most fatal of all skin
cancers. Since 1990, the risk of developing melanoma has more than doubled.
UV can also damage sensitive crops, such as soybeans, and reduce crop yields. Some scientists
suggest that marine phytoplankton, which are the base of the ocean food chain, are already
under stress from UV radiation. This stress could have adverse consequences for human food
supplies from the oceans.
The United States, along with over 180 other countries, recognized the threats posed by ozone depletion and in 1987 adopted a treaty called the Montreal Protocol to phase out the production and use of ozone-depleting substances.
EPA has established regulations to phase out ozone-depleting chemicals in the United States. Warning labels must be placed on all products containing CFCs or similar substances and nonessential uses of ozone-depleting products are prohibited. Releases into the air of refrigerants used in car and home air conditioning units and appliances are also prohibited. Some substitutes to ozone-depleting products have been produced and others are being developed. If the United States and other countries stop producing ozone-depleting substances, natural ozone production should return the ozone layer to normal levels by about 2050.
Ground-level or "bad" ozone is not emitted directly into the air, but is created
by chemical reactions between oxides of nitrogen (NOx) and volatile organic
compounds (VOC) in the presence of sunlight. Emissions from industrial facilities
and electric utilities, motor vehicle exhaust, gasoline vapors, and chemical
solvents are some of the major sources of NOx and VOC.
At ground level, ozone is a harmful pollutant. Ozone pollution is a concern
during the summer months because strong sunlight and hot weather result in harmful
ozone concentrations in the air we breathe. Many urban and suburban areas throughout
the United States have high levels of "bad" ozone. But many rural areas of the country
are also subject to high ozone levels as winds carry emissions hundreds of miles away
from their original sources.
Breathing ozone can trigger a variety of health problems including chest pain,
coughing, throat irritation, and congestion. It can worsen bronchitis, emphysema,
and asthma. "Bad" ozone also can reduce lung function and inflame the linings of
the lungs. Repeated exposure may permanently scar lung tissue.
Healthy people also experience difficulty breathing when exposed to ozone pollution.
Because ozone forms in hot weather, anyone who spends time outdoors in the summer
may be affected, particularly children, outdoor workers and people exercising.
Millions of Americans live in areas where the national ozone health standards
Ground-level or "bad" ozone also damages vegetation and ecosystems.
It leads to reduced agricultural crop and commercial forest
yields, reduced growth and survivability of tree seedlings,
and increased susceptibility to diseases, pests and other
stresses such as harsh weather. In the United States alone,
ground-level ozone is responsible for an estimated $500 million
in reduced crop production each year. Ground-level ozone also
damages the foliage of trees and other plants, affecting the
landscape of cities, national parks and forests, and recreation
Under the Clean Air Act, EPA has set protective health-based standards
for ozone in the air we breathe. EPA, state, and cities have instituted a
variety of multi-faceted programs to meet these health-based standards.
Throughout the country, additional programs are being put into place
to cut NOx and VOC emissions from vehicles, industrial facilities, and
electric utilities. Programs are also aimed at reducing pollution by
reformulating fuels and consumer/commercial products, such as paints and
chemical solvents, that contain VOC. Voluntary programs also encourage
communities to adopt practices, such as carpooling, to reduce harmful emissions.
We live with ozone every day. It can protect life on earth or harm
it, but we have the power to influence ozone's impact
by the way we live.
- Protect yourself against sunburn. When the UV Index is "high" or "very high": Limit outdoor activities between
10 am and 4 pm, when the sun is most intense. Twenty minutes before going outside, liberally apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen
with a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of at least 15. Reapply every two hours or after swimming or sweating. For UV Index
forecasts, check local media reports or visit:
- Use approved refrigerants in air conditioning and refrigeration equipment.
Make sure technicians that work on your car or home air conditioners or
refrigerator are certified to recover the refrigerant. Repair leaky air
conditioning units before refilling them.
- Check the air quality forecast in your area. At times when the Air Quality Index (AQI) is forecast to be unhealthy,
limit physical exertion outdoors. In many places, ozone peaks in mid-afternoon to early evening. Change the time
of day of strenuous outdoor activity to avoid these hours, or reduce the intensity of the activity. For AQI forecasts,
check your local media reports or visit: http://epa.gov/airnow
- Help your local electric utilities reduce ozone air pollution by conserving energy
at home and the office. Consider setting your thermostat a little higher in the summer.
Participate in your local utilities' load-sharing and energy conservation programs.
- Reduce air pollution from cars, trucks, gas-powered lawn and garden equipment, boats
and other engines by keeping equipment properly tuned and maintained. During the summer,
fill your gas tank during the cooler evening hours and be careful not to spill gasoline.
Reduce driving, carpool, use public transportation, walk, or bicycle to reduce ozone
pollution, especially on hot summer days.
- Use household and garden chemicals wisely. Use low VOC paints and solvents. And be sure
to read labels for proper use and disposal.
For air program information, contact your Regional EPA Office:
visit EPA's Web site at http://www.epa.gov/air
The "good" ozone layer in the stratosphere protects life
on Earth from the Sun's harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays.
|MIDDLE: Antarctic Ozone Thinning-shown in blue and purple, extended
out over 16 million square miles or about the same size as North America (2001 NASA satellite image).
"Bad" ozone at ground-level is harmful to breathe and
damages crops, trees, and other vegetation.
|Office of Air and Radiation
1200 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20460