by Mary Stauble
October 31 isn’t just Halloween. It also marks the official end of ozone season in North Carolina (March 1 – October 31). Ozone is a colorless gas that occurs naturally in the Earth’s stratosphere, where it helps protect us from harmful ultraviolet rays. Down at ground level, however, ozone is a dangerous pollutant that causes a sunburn inside our lungs, triggering inflammation and making it painful to breathe.
Ground-level ozone is not emitted directly into the air. It is formed when car exhaust and industry pollutants react with heat and sunlight. While the cooler fall temperatures make the formation of ground-level ozone less likely, our warming climate will extend the risk of ozone exposure further and further each year.
People may breathe a sigh of relief to have ozone season over, but they should still pay attention. Air pollution is a year-round concern.
Who Is At Risk?
Ground-level ozone is the main component of smog and is the single most widespread air pollutant in the United States. It has been linked with respiratory illnesses, increased asthma attacks, and even premature death.
The burden of ozone pollution is not evenly shared. Vulnerable populations such as children (whose lungs are still developing), older adults, people with existing respiratory disease or a heart condition, and anyone who is frequently active outdoors are particularly sensitive to the impacts of air pollution. People who spend lots of time in heavy traffic, or who live near a busy road, are also at greater risk. Low-income communities and communities of color often face higher exposure to pollutants where they live and work.
How to Protect Yourself From Air Pollution
Ozone pollution is one of the five major air pollutants that the EPA uses to calculate the Air Quality Index (AQI), which provides local reports of daily air quality. Anyone can have health impacts when the AQI is code red or above, but sensitive groups are affected at lower levels and should therefore take greater precaution.
The American Lung Association offers ten tips for protecting you and your family from ground-level ozone and other air pollutants including:
- Check daily air pollution forecasts in your area. The color-coded forecasts can let you know when the air is unhealthy in your community. Find it online at airnow.gov.
- Avoid exercising outdoors when pollution levels are high. Limit the amount of time your child spends playing outdoors if the air quality is unhealthy.
- Always avoid exercising near high-traffic areas. Even when air quality forecasts are green, the vehicles on busy highways can create high pollution levels up to one-third of a mile away.
- Use less energy in your home. Generating electricity and other sources of energy creates air pollution.
- Encourage your child’s school to reduce exposure to school bus emissions. To keep exhaust levels down, schools should not allow school buses (and cars) to idle outside of their buildings.
Our air quality in North Carolina is cleaner now than it was before the Clean Smokestacks Act (2002) took effect, but it is not clean enough to protect people’s health from harm. Climate change will make ozone pollution worse in the summer while dragging ozone season further and further past the official “end date.” Clean air is important year-round, and we all need to keep working to make it that way.