Air Quality: Ozone: Health Friend or Foe?

By Steve Packham

Most folks know that ozone is an important part of the atmosphere. Those of us old enough to remember the panic around the depletion of the ozone layer remember that this gas plays an important role in shielding the Earth from harmful radiation.

So ozone is good, right? Well, yes and no.

Here’s the thing: ozone is a molecule made up of three oxygen atoms. It’s O3. The oxygen we breathe to live is made of only two oxygen atoms. O2 is very stable; O3, not so much

O3 is looking for a reason to kick out one oxygen and get back to the happy monogamy of O2. The single oxygen atom is a lung-tissue wrecker looking for love in all the wrong places. It becomes a stalking predator in our airways attacking the closest molecule that can’t fight it off. This is called oxidation. Unchecked, it can do damage.

Being outdoors in the summer is fun. The bad news is that’s when O3 can be a problem. Ozone levels are affected by sunlight and temperature. The lowest levels are in December. The highest are in July.

The good news is that lungs of air-breathing animals like us have been fighting O3 a long time and have cells that make and replenish the liquid lining protecting our airways with anti-oxidants 24/7. And you guessed it: these cells produce more O3-eating antioxidants in the summer.

Ozone Levels 2003-2012

Division of Air Quality Hourly Averages for Utah 2003-2012

So is it okay to exercise in the summer, even if the ozone levels are higher? According to Tegan K. Boehmer, senior research scientist, Center for Disease Control (CDC), “(c)urrent evidence indicates that the health benefits of being active, even in polluted air, outweigh the risks of being inactive.”

Having fun and being healthy during the summer ozone season depends on following “Dirty” Harry Callahan’s dictum (Clint Eastwood in Magnum Force): “A man’s got to know his limitations.”

Get to know your limitations by regularly checking afternoon ozone levels using the UtahAir App or visiting the Division of Air Quality website and be aware of any respiratory symptoms you might have after being active outdoors.

You can protect your health during summer ozone season by taking a few simple steps. Check out Utah Department of Health recommendations for outdoor activity during ozone season. Download the free UtahAir App for Android or iOS to get real-time information on ozone levels throughout the day. And do your part to reduce ozone levels by driving less and driving smarter.

Steve PackhamI have worked as the toxicologist for the Utah Division of Air Quality since 1991. I am a Diplomat of the American Board of Toxicology and received a BS degree from BYU and a MS and PHD from the University of Oregon. I am an Adjunct Associate Professor, University of Utah, Department of Family and Preventative Medicine, and was awarded the Utah Health Hero Award from the Utah Public Health Association in 2005 for my collaborative participation in the development of the Utah Department of Health School Recess Guidelines and Recommendations for Summer Ozone Activities. My career in the academic and private sectors has focused on practical applications of scientific methods and knowledge. Working for the Utah Division of Air Quality gives me the opportunity to make air quality health issues understandable and useful to the general public.