What is Ozone? Good up high, bad nearby!
Ground-level ozone is a component of smog that is produced when nitrogen oxides (NOx) combine with volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and “cook” in the summer heat. Emissions from industrial facilities and electric utilities, motor vehicle exhaust, gasoline vapors, and chemical solvents are some of the major sources of NOx and VOCs. Ozone season is from the months of April to October.
Ozone plays a much different role, depending on whether it is at ground level or six miles up in the second layer of atmosphere. Ozone up high protects us from UV rays. Ozone at ground level is a pollutant that affects our lung health.
The Health Effects of Ozone
Ozone pollution penetrates deep into the lungs irritating mucous membranes in the respiratory system. Some health effects include increased asthma attacks, inflamed and damaged lungs, and increased susceptibility to respiratory infection. Short term exposures to high levels of ozone affect the lungs much like a sunburn. The inflammation goes away and new cells replace the damaged cells. However, replacement cells are not exactly like those replaced. Long-term effects of repeated ozone exposures are not yet available, but researchers expect to see similar effects as repeated long-term skin sunburns are linked to skin cancer.
Sensitive populations should stay indoors when ozone levels rise. These sensitive groups include the elderly, children, those with chronic bronchitis, emphysema, and asthma. Even people who work outdoors are susceptible to effects of elevated levels of ozone.
Ozone Effects on the Environment
Ground-level ozone interferes with the ability of plants to produce and store food as ozone is absorbed by plant leaves. This compromises the growth, reproduction, and overall health of the plant. Also, weakened vegetation is more susceptible to disease, pests, and environmental stresses. Ground-level ozone has also been shown to reduce agricultural yields. The effects of ground-level ozone can damage entire ecosystems of forests.
Sensitive plants include annual plants such as soybeans and alfalfa and fast-growing deciduous trees such as the cottonwood.
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Ozone in Our Region
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) releases air quality standards called the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS). These standards establish acceptable level of ozone pollutants in the air based on the effects on health and the environment. The EPA regularly reviews the standards and may be lowering the acceptable level of ozone in the air due to increasing evidence that humans are more affected by ozone pollution than previously believed. If this occurs, the Omaha-Council Bluffs metro area may be over the new standard, pushing the area into what is called “Non-attainment.” This essentially means that there is too much ozone in the air and the area is over the limit set by the EPA.
What happens if our area reaches Non-Attainment?
If the area goes into non-attainment (or over the ozone standard) there are several consequences. The states will have to draft State Implementation Plans (SIPs) that spell out how the area will reduce emissions and lower levels of ozone. Additionally, new pollution controls may be required and industries would need to identify pollution offsets for new or expanding facilities. For example, an industry that would like to expand could be forced to purchase pollution reduction equipment for another business or even purchase another business and close its doors to reduce emissions. Consequently, going into non-attainment can have serious economic development ramifications. Non-attainment areas are also required to do more paperwork and reporting for businesses.
All metro area transportation projects would have to conform to burdensome ozone-reduction plans, which adds time to the project development process and can limit the types of transportation improvements that get funded.
Citizens, businesses, government, and industry are all affected by a non-attainment designation from the EPA. It is important to take steps now to remain in attainment with clean, healthful air for our community.