Heeding Ozone, Taking Precautions Could Spare Breathing Problems

HOUSTON (June 20, 2011) — Ozone, the prevalent gas found in air pollution in greater Houston, can trigger severe violent breathing problems in many people, particularly children and seniors, unless they take precautions, says a lung expert from Ben Taub General Hospital. 

“If inhaled, ozone causes breathing and airway problems for asthma sufferers and smokers with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). People can have difficulty breathing and sometimes experience severe chest pains,” says Dr. Nick Hanania, director, Adult Asthma Clinic and Pulmonary Diagnostic Laboratory, Ben Taub General Hospital, part of the Harris County Hospital District. “For some sufferers, immediate hospital attention and treatment are required.”

During the summer, Houston’s air quality varies from good to poor. A little known fact is that ozone gas can sometimes linger in areas and trap itself inside houses.

Created through a combination of pollutants from cars, industrial sites and petrochemical plants and the area’s intense heat, ozone is a dangerous gas. However, this ozone gas should not be confused with the protective atmospheric layer of ozone shielding earth from the sun’s harmful rays. Ground-level ozone can be seen as smog from miles away and sometimes appears as a hazy shimmer around Houston’s downtown skyline.

People susceptible to ozone are children who normally spend a lot of time outdoors during the summer, active adults who work or exercise outdoors, people with asthma or other respiratory problems and others who have unknown reactions to ozone.

Ozone can cause the following symptoms:

• Cough, throat irritation and uncomfortable sensation in the chest:
• Reduced lung function and the inability to breathe deeply or vigorously as normal.
• Inflamed and damaged cells lining of the lungs.
• Difficulty fighting off lung infections.

Not all people show symptoms. In some, lung damage can occur without any noticeable signs. In others, lung damage can continue to occur even after symptoms disappear. When levels are high, people at risk should take simple precautions:

• Stay indoors and in air-conditioned comfort, as much as possible.
• Limit outside activities to the early morning hours or after sunset. 
• Don’t exercise or work outdoors when ozone levels tend to be highest.
• Stay away from high-vehicular traffic areas and avoid exercising near these areas at all times.

Last year, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the air monitoring agency for the state recorded Houston as number one in the state with the highest number of ozone alerts. On 44 days, Houston reported eight-hour ozone averages of more than 75 ppb (parts per billion) and on seven days, posted one-hour averages of more than 124 ppb. Air quality in Houston rated so poorly for ozone that the American Lung Association ranked it eighth worst in nation. Los Angeles was rated as the worst.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality uses a color-coded Air Quality Index:

• Good (green) – 0-50 ppb
• Moderate (yellow) – 51-100 ppb
• Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups (orange) – 101-150 ppb
• Unhealthy (red) – 151-200 ppb
• Very Unhealthy (purple) – 201-300 ppb
• Hazardous (maroon) – 301-plus ppb

Ozone is not confined to industrial or heavy car traffic areas of town. It can be moved about by wind. In houses with no air conditioning, ozone can be let in through open windows and doors. Fans placed in windows for cooling can pull in ozone and trap it in homes. Ozone tends to be highest from March through October.

“Public ozone alerts are important because they help people stay safe and healthy,” Hanania says. “Depending on the levels of ozone in the air, these alerts can be life-saving for some people. The best thing is to be in a place with central air or air conditioning.”

If symptoms and breathing problems persist, Hanania recommends people seek immediate medical attention through their primary care physician or nearest emergency facility. For information on ozone warnings and forecasts, visit the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s website at www.tceq.texas.gov/agency/public_main.html and search under “Your Air Quality.”

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