How do ozone pollution levels effect your respiratory health?

Dangerous air pollution affected millions of people in our country’s Northeast last week. Luckily, our area wasn’t affected by that severe pollution.

However, it did experience ozone action days and ozone pollution levels that were considered unhealthy for sensitive groups.

Houston typically averages between 20 to 30 days per year with elevated ozone levels. As the summer approaches, our region will see more weather forecasts that include an ozone action day. We will need to take steps to prevent ground-level ozone from harming our respiratory health.

Dr. David Persse, Chief Medical Officer with the City of Houston, joined us on KPRC 2+ at 7 to share more about ozone and our respiratory health.

What exactly is ozone?

Ozone is a colorless gas that can either help or harm. When ozone occurs naturally in the Earth’s atmosphere, it helps create a shield against the sun’s dangerous ultraviolet rays.

Ozone becomes harmful to people’s health when it forms at ground level. Ozone is the result of emissions from cars, power plants, refineries, chemical plants and other sources reacting chemically with sunlight.

Unhealthy levels of ground-level ozone typically form in the afternoon during the hot summer months when sunny days with high temperatures and low wind speeds are more common.

How is ozone harmful to people’s health?

When ozone is inhaled, it can cause a number of respiratory health effects:

  • Irritation of the respiratory system. Symptoms include coughing, throat irritation or an uncomfortable sensation in the chest; they may last a few hours and become painful.
  • A reduction in lung function. Ozone can make it more difficult to breathe deeply and vigorously. If exercising or working outside, people may notice they are taking more rapid and shallow breaths than normal, usually a problem for outdoor workers.
  • Exacerbation of asthma. Ozone makes people more sensitive to allergens. And when the pollutant reaches high levels, more asthmatics have asthma attacks requiring a doctor’s attention or use of additional medication. Also, asthmatics are more severely affected by the reduced lung function and irritation that ozone causes in the respiratory system.
  • Inflammation and damage of lung tissue. Ozone damages the cells that line the air spaces in the lung. Affected cells are replaced after a few days, but if damage occurs repeatedly, the lung may change permanently and possibly cause long-term health effects and lower quality of life.

Who is most at risk of the effects of ozone exposure?

  • Children, because they often engage in vigorous outdoor activities during their summer vacation.
  • Adults of all ages who are active, exercise or work outdoors. They have a higher level of exposure to ozone than people who are less active outdoors.
  • People with respiratory diseases such as asthma. People with respiratory conditions experience the effects of ozone earlier and at lower levels than less sensitive people.
  • Babies, because they are still developing and older adults because they are less able to combat health issues.

How do people protect themselves during ozone action days?

People can limit the amount of air they breathe in while outside. For example:

  • They can think about spending more time indoors, where ozone levels are usually lower.
  • They also can choose easier outdoor activities like walking instead of running so they don’t breathe as hard.
  • Plan outdoor activities at times when ozone levels are lower. Such as usually in the morning and evening.