Earth Matters: Unhealthy ozone trapped over Long Island Sound

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I’ve been checking ground-level ozone levels lately. I’ve actually never done this before because I don’t have asthma and no one else in my family does either. But as the summer heat descends upon us, I am concerned about how air quality is affecting people with respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses, the elderly and young babies. Ground-level ozone can even affect healthy people who are out for a run or those playing outdoor team sports. It can cause shortness of breath, coughing, an inability to breathe deeply, irritation of the lungs and can lead to asthma attacks and even permanent lung damage.

What is ground-level ozone? First, it shouldn’t be confused with ozone in the stratosphere which is a “good” ozone layer, protecting life on earth from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays. Ground-level ozone is a colorless gas that is created when pollutants emitted by cars, power plants and other chemical sources react in the presence of sunlight, particularly on hot days with stagnant air. The two primary pollutants are nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds.

Since automobile exhaust is a primary pollutant, you would think that during the pandemic, the amount of ground-level ozone would be significantly lowered because of stay-at-home advisories and reduced traffic, but researchers at the University of Washington found that neither ozone nor another pollutant called PM 2.5 (particulate matter) have decreased in metropolitan areas during the crisis.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Long Island is officially a “non-attainment area” for ozone, as measured by the National Ambient Air Quality Standards.  This means we do not meet the standards of the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1970. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation identifies high-emitting stationary sources of nitrogen oxides (power plants and industrial operations) as coming from out-of-state sources, contributing significantly to our non-attainment status here on Long Island. These include Ohio, Pennsylvania, Illinois and Michigan.

Long Island’s non-attainment status seems surprising, since we are surrounded by water and receive a steady supply of ocean breezes coming off the Atlantic. But that’s where it gets interesting. It turns out that pollutants like ozone actually tend to become trapped in the cooler air over Long Island Sound. As temperatures rise, the breeze pulls this pollution inland, leading to higher ground-level ozone concentrations along our shorelines.

The same pollutants that form ground-level ozone can also be harmful to the environment, from damage to trees, crops and wildlife to aquatic animals and plants found in surface waters. In the United States, ozone is responsible for an estimated $500 million in crop losses each year. It also interferes with the ability of certain plants to produce and store food, making them more susceptible to diseases and insect infestation. Trees can suffer reduced growth and damage to their leaves, impacting the health and appearance of the vegetation in our parks and recreation areas.

But ozone is not the only thing in the air to be concerned about. There’s a new problem in our air, and it’s one you might find surprising: plastic, or microplastics, to be technically correct. Microplastics are fragments ranging in size from 50 micrometers (twice the diameter of a human skin cell) to five millimeters (the diameter of a grain of rice), the result of the breakdown of larger plastic items, the single-use plastic soup that we are swimming in every day.

We hear a lot about plastic pollution fouling the world’s oceans, even from this newspaper column. But it is also in the air we breathe, falling from the sky and being swept up into the earth’s air currents. A relatively new area of research, scientists have been astounded by the early data. Outdoor dust samples collected contained about 4 percent microplastics, originating as everyday personal items, food packaging, carpeting, paint and other common goods. By far, though, the biggest contributor was clothing. Synthetic fabrics, which account for 60 million tons per year, shed millions of microfibers each time they are washed. Think about that polyester fleece that you just washed and put away for the winter.

Plastic waste, including microplastics, attract and accumulate toxic chemicals on their surfaces, like persistent organic pollutants, including flame retardants, non-stick chemicals and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. We have long been worried about this toxic exposure for animals living in our oceans. Now we have to think about breathing into our lungs not only microplastics, but also their chemical hitchhikers.The health effects of breathing in plastic particles is not well-known, although the sizes of the particles are consistent with the size of other known particulate matter that accumulate in lung tissue and cause significant health problems.

As a final thought, plan to get out early for your jog, as ground-level ozone levels are generally lower in the morning, and think about your purchase of synthetic clothing and single-use plastics and the effect these decisions will have on the air you breathe.

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