Summer doesn’t mean safe – how to protect yourself from ozone pollution

During the winter months, air quality is on most everyone’s minds along the Wasatch Front. It’s difficult to ignore, because we can all see it. Summer air quality is a different beast. The Wasatch Front’s air pollution in the summer is mostly ozone, which you can’t see, unless we also have wildfire smoke which we often do. 

Sunlight and high temperatures react with nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds to create ozone pollution. Ozone can form thousands of miles from where its precursors are emitted, and will become even more of a global problem, affecting both rural and urban areas. Ozone is often described as creating an effect of “sunburning” the lungs.  But it is also much more than that.  It is associated with most of the same diseases that particulate pollution is, i.e. diseases of the heart, lungs, brain, blood vessels, and poor pregnancy outcomes.

As climate change continues to create hotter conditions in Utah, summer ozone is becoming a bigger and bigger issue. 

Ozone pollution is harder to spot than winter inversions, but can be just as harmful. 

During last week’s extreme heat, KSL asked me to weigh in on the pollution concern. “People often think it’s just a problem with breathing or people who are asthmatic have more trouble, having to use their inhalers more often — it’s much more than that. Virtually all the same kinds of diseases we know are related to air pollution exposure with particulate matter is also the case with ozone.”

Unfortunately, escaping summer ozone pollution isn’t as easy for some as escaping winter inversions, where residents can head up the mountains and be above the poor air. “Ozone formation can occur hundreds if not thousands of miles away from where the precursors are emitted and those precursors are VOCs — volatile organic compounds — and nitrogen oxides,” I told KSL. “They may combine hundreds of miles away to form ozone — so it almost doesn’t matter where you live. It could be up in the mountains, it could be in a rural area; you’re still going to be exposed to high levels of ozone for that reason.”

There are still ways to protect yourself: 
Seek out foods rich in antioxidants to help combat the effects of pollution.
Avoid using indoor gas stoves and barbecues, which can release pollutants.
Stay informed about daily air quality levels by checking local air quality reports. 
On days with high ozone levels, limit outdoor activities, especially during peak hours in the afternoon and early evening.
Reduce vehicle emissions by using public transit, carpooling, biking, or walking whenever possible. This helps decrease the overall pollution levels in our community.
Simple actions like turning off lights, unplugging electronics, and using energy-efficient appliances can reduce the demand for electricity, which, in turn, reduces emissions from power plants.

A new resource tracks Salt Lake County’s ozone levels! We do warn that the resource is using the EPA’s Air Quality Index (AQI) as a measurement. The AQI is deceptive, as there is no safe level of air pollution, although it indicates that there is. 

One of our staff was driving through southern Utah this weekend, where the AQI said it was “moderate,” the level below “unhealthy for sensitive groups. See for yourself if you think this air quality would be healthy for sensitive groups or anyone, for that matter. 

The poor air quality in southern Utah this last weekend (June 14, 2024) was from a wildfire, so it was easy to see that it would be better for your health to avoid it. But as we’ve mentioned, ozone is trickier to avoid because you can’t see it. This makes air quality monitoring that much more important. 

UPHE recommends the air quality monitoring system that Purple Air has created. You are able to see ozone levels by changing the data layer. 

Our collective efforts can make a significant difference in improving our air quality and protecting our health. Let’s stay informed, take proactive measures, and support each other during these challenging times.

Together, we can make a positive impact on our environment and community health.

See what the Utah Department of Environmental Quality says about summer ozone.
See what the EPA says about health impacts of ozone pollution.

UPHE in the News on summer ozone pollution:
KSL article
Utah Public Radio

Research on health impacts of ozone:

Numerous studies have shown that air pollution is significantly correlated with rates of Type II diabetes.  This study shows the possible biologic mechanism–increased levels of circulating stress hormones and lipid metabolites with even brief exposure to high levels of ozone.
Miller D, et al. Ozone Exposure Increases Circulating Stress Hormones and Lipid Metabolites in Humans. Am J Respir Crit Care Med. 2016 Jan 8. [Epub ahead of print]

Numerous studies have found a correlation between air pollution and behavioral disorders including unethical behavior.  This study of over 86 million people found that correlation also exists for violent crime. Burkhardt J, et al.  The effect of pollution on crime: Evidence from data on particulate matter and ozone. Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, 2019; 102267 DOI: 10.1016/j.jeem.2019.102267

This is a landmark study on air pollution and mortality, involving 61 million people from throughout the country.  It is published in the most prestigious journal in the world, the New England Journal of Medicine.  It significantly strengthens the association between premature death and PM2.5 and ozone.  The key findings were that levels of both pollutants, well below the EPA’s standards are still strongly associated with mortality.  Specifically, for every 10 ug/m3 of chronic PM2.5 exposure mortality in 7.3%, or .73% for every 1 ug/m3.  For ozone, for every 10 ppb, the mortality increased 1.1%.  However, at lower concentrations, that association was even stronger.  For those people exposed to levels of PM2.5 below 12 ug/m3 (the current EPA annual standard), and below 50 ppb ozone (the current EPA standard is 70 ppb), the risk of death increased to 1.36% for every 1 ug/m3 for PM2.5, and continued at the same rate for ozone, i.e. 1% for every 10 ppb.

This is the strongest research statement yet to establish that:  1.  There is no safe level of air pollution.  2.  Current EPA standards are inadequate and out of step with the science.  3.  The health hazard per unit off exposure is actually greater at the lowest doses.  That means public policy needs to address the problem even for those cities that have relatively clean air.  4.  The current administration’s attempt to delay or rollback standards will do even more harm than what has been previously calculated. Di Q, et al. Air Pollution and Mortality in the Medicare Population. New England Journal of Medicine, 2017; 376 (26): 2513 DOI: 10.1056/NEJMoa1702747

Ozone is associated with increased rates of hospitalizations for heart attacks.

Chiu HF, Weng YH, Chiu YW, Yang CY. Short-Term Effects of Ozone Air Pollution on Hospital Admissions for Myocardial Infarction: A Time-Stratified Case-Crossover Study in Taipei. J Toxicol Environ Health A. 2017 Jun 9:1-7. doi: 10.1080/15287394.2017.1321092. [Epub ahead of print]