For more information about National Park Service air resources, please visit http://www.nature.nps.gov/air/.


Ozone Effects on Health

Photo of automobile vehicles at the south entrance of Zion National Park
South entrance to Zion National Park, Utah.

Ozone, the main ingredient of smog, presents a serious air quality problem in several National Park Service areas. Even at low levels, ozone can cause health effects.

What is ozone?

Ozone is a colorless gas found in the air we breathe. Ozone can be beneficial or harmful for people, depending where it occurs. Beneficial ozone is present naturally in the Earth’s upper atmosphere, 10–30 miles above the Earth’s surface. This natural ozone shields us from the sun’s ultraviolet rays. Harmful ozone forms near ground level when air pollutants (emitted by sources such as cars, power plants, and chemical plants) react chemically in the presence of sunlight. Ozone pollution is more likely to form during warmer months.

Ozone is primarily formed by chemical reactions between volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and oxides of nitrogen in the presence of sunlight and elevated temperatures. The human caused sources of VOCs and nitrogen oxides are industrial and automobile emissions. Ozone concentrations can be transported hundreds of miles and affect remote areas of the country.

How can ground-level ozone affect your health?

Ozone can irritate your respiratory system, when this happens, you may cough, feel irritation or soreness in your throat, or experience chest tightness or pain when taking a deep breath. Reduced lung function can make it more difficult for you to breathe as deeply and vigorously as you normally would. This is especially true when exercising at higher elevations.

Exposure to ozone can also increase the susceptibility of the lungs to infections, allergens, and other air pollutants. Medical studies have shown that health problems caused by ozone may continue long after exposure has ended.

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Who is at risk?

When ozone levels are very high, everyone should be concerned about ozone exposure. In general, as concentrations of ground-level ozone increase, both the number of people affected and the seriousness of the health effects increase. Several groups of people are particularly sensitive to ozone, especially when they are active outdoors. Ozone levels are higher outdoors, and physical activity causes faster and deeper breathing, drawing more ozone into the body.

People particularly sensitive to ozone include:

  • People with lung diseases, such as asthma, chronic bronchitis, and emphysema will generally experience more serious health effects at lower ozone levels.
  • Children are at higher risk from ozone exposure because they often play outdoors in summer when ozone levels are higher and their lungs are still developing.
  • Older adults may be more affected by ozone exposure, possibly because they are more likely to have pre-existing lung disease.
  • Active people of all ages who exercise or work vigorously outdoors have higher exposure to ozone than people who are less active.
  • Some healthy people may experience health effects at lower ozone levels than the average person even though they have none of the risk factors listed above. There may be a genetic basis for this increased sensitivity.

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What are National Park Service ozone health advisories?

The National Park Service issues ozone health advisories at several areas when ozone concentrations are predicted to or exceed the National Ambient Air Quality Standard. The ozone health standard is based on an 8-hour average concentration set at 70 parts per billion (ppb). Due to rounding, EPA considers an exceedance of the 8-hour standard when the ozone concentration exceeds 75 ppb. Using the EPA air quality index, the National Park Service ozone health advisories are based on the levels shown in the table below. Ozone health advisories issued for National Park Service areas can be viewed at http://www.nature.nps.gov/air/data/current/advisory/advisory.cfm

Air Quality Index (ppb) diagram for ozone

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How does ground-level ozone affect natural resources?

Some plants are actually sensitive to ozone at levels well under the national health standards. Lichens, mosses, and liverworts often are most sensitive within an ecosystem and can serve as early indicators of air pollution effects. Plants such as trees, shrubs, and herbaceous species can also be injured by ozone which damages leaves and needles and weakens the plants ability to withstand disease and insect infestations. Learn more »

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Last Updated: January 10, 2013