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Ozone: Understanding summer's sneaky pollutant

Posted at 5:40 PM, Jul 31, 2020

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's winter and summer air pollution seasons look as different as winter and summer, but they're equally bad for your lungs.

The difference: Winter smog is easy to see and easy to understand. It's called particulate pollution because it's made of tiny particles you don't want to breathe in.

But summer ozone is easy to miss. It's a faint haze you can perceive by looking into the distance. Understanding it takes a chemistry lesson.

The story above includes a video made by Colorado's University Corporation of Atmospheric Research. It's a helpful explanation of how ozone is formed.

The basics:

  • Ozone is a gas that occurs naturally in the stratosphere — the upper level atmosphere where it is a life-sustaining shield against the sun's rays.
  • When intense sunlight strikes the nitrogen oxides and hyrdrocarbons emitted by factories, power plants, industrial and household chemicals and car and other internal combustion engines, the reaction creates ozone in the lower atmosphere.
  • The human body evolved to breathe air composed primarily of nitrogen and oxygen, with tiny percentages of various gases that don't include ozone.
  • Ozone is considered an oxidant, meaning it breaks down molecules. When we breathe it in, it reacts in the lungs like a sunburn.

While ozone is harmful and can have long-lasting health effects, it gives us one advantage in terms of intervening when we have a problem. While winter particulates stick around in the air until an inversion lifts, ozone breaks down in a few hours, meaning each day is something of a clean slate if we make changes like driving less, avoiding the use of gas-burning lawn equipment and encouraging government and industries to adjust their emissions-creating operations.