Ground Level Ozone Anywhere Harms Us Everywhere

By Jasmyne Bryant

City with pollution
                                                                             Photo by BriYYZ from Toronto, Canada (Park Hayatt, Shanghai)

Polluted air from China and other highly industrial parts of Asia is potentially being blown towards the Pacific Northwest of the United States, or in other words, our backyards. In recent studies, Dr. Ian Faloona a UC Davis atmospheric scientist, found that air motions are affecting ground level ozone levels on an international scale. Ground level ozone has the potential to harm our health and our climate - making high levels of it a serious threat to us all. 

Tropospheric, or ground level, ozone is a greenhouse gas created by toxic pollutants (emitted into our air through transportation and industry) reacting with sunlight. Ground level ozone is dangerous for our health because it affects our ability to breathe normally. According to the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) made by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), ozone’s health effects in healthy adults include: inflammation of airways, reduced lung function, aggravation of asthma, creation of asthma, systemic inflammation, and premature death. These risks, however, do not compare to those health risks of children, which include permanent reduction of lung function and stunted lung development. Children are at higher risk because their lungs are still developing, they breathe more on average than adults, and they tend to spend more time outdoors. 

Fig 1Beyond ozone’s harmful effect on the human body, ozone also affects the climate on Earth. Ozone in the troposphere (the section of the atmosphere where our weather happens) is a potentially harmful greenhouse gas. Like the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, ozone traps energy in the atmosphere which then heats the Earth. As climate warms, in part because of ozone, ozone in the air is likely to only get worse as a result. According to the EPA, climate change, with no change in emissions, could increase the ground level ozone concentrations and prolong the ozone season. This would therefore worsen climate, which then worsens ozone levels, and creates a cycle of continually worsening air quality if we do not reduce emissions. 

Climate change is a very serious global environmental justice concern, because it will produce higher air and sea temperatures, tremendous rainfall, and frequent heat waves. These weather changes have the potential to worsen air quality conditions in which ozone is already more likely to be produced, similarly promoting a cycle of poor air quality and Earthly conditions, resulting in large health and welfare implications across the world. 

Fig 2Due to its obvious dangers, the United States has taken action to improve air quality by reducing ozone-forming chemicals on a local level. This has been a complicated effort because of wind's ability to carry pollutants across large areas. Therefore, when ozone is affecting a local area it does not mean the pollutants were made in the Pacific Northwest at all. To illustrate this, figure 1 is the Air Quality in Los Angeles, California and the figure 2 is the Air Quality in Shanghai, China. When compare this shows that although local air quality may be low and regulated (noting the levels of O3, or ozone), there are simultaneously dangerous air quality across the globe which pose a potential threat to all of us because it is produced in a very windy area (noting the levels of wind). 

In fact, Dr. Owen Cooper, research scientist with the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, published a study in the journal Nature Geoscience which concluded that small increases of ozone in Western States, like ours, are linked to high winds in southeastern Asia. Dr. Cooper says when ozone is “in the free troposphere [it] can have a lifetime of 10-30 days, long enough to be transported from one continent to another. Transport from Asia to the western US can occur in under 5 days if the westerly winds are strong.” 

Taking all this into consideration, it becomes clear that global air pollution may be detrimentally affecting local efforts to reduce ozone levels in the air. Air pollution is a global issue that will not be solved by local initiatives alone. We must all actively lower global emissions in order to truly obtain clean air for all. It’s time we breathe easy, and take care of the ground level ozone problem globally. 


Jasmyne BryantJasmyne Bryant is a junior at UW Bothell majoring in Society, Ethics, and Human Behavior. Born in California, she grew up in Vancouver, Washington. “The air we breathe is fundamental to all life on earth, and our impact on the air must be addressed if we are to adequately promote the well-being of our planet and our people.”