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Ozone (O3) is an odorless and colorless molecule made up of three oxygen atoms linked together, and can be found in the air we breathe.

Ozone is naturally in the upper atmosphere surrounding the Earth and protects life from the damaging ultraviolet light emitted by the sun.

At ground level, the same ozone is harmful to living things. It is not emitted from smokestacks and tailpipes, but rather from the pollutants that are emitted from them.

Ground-level ozone is an air pollutant that damages human health, vegetation, and many man-made materials. It is also the prime ingredient in smog in American cities.

Ground-level ozone is usually created by a chemical reaction between other pollutants in the presence of heat and sunlight, i.e., hot, humid summertime. Vehicle exhaust, industrial emissions, gasoline vapors, and chemical solvents are major sources of the pollutants that form ozone at ground level.

Sunlight and hot weather cause ozone to form in harmful concentrations in the air. Peak ozone levels typically occur during hot, dry, stagnant summer time conditions.

Ozone is not emitted directly into the air instead it is formed when gases called oxides of nitrogen (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) react in sunlight and heat. Emissions of NOx are produced when fossil fuels are burned in motor vehicle engines, power plants and industrial boilers. There are hundreds of thousands of VOC sources including automobile emissions, gasoline vapors, chemical solvents and consumer products like paint.

Ozone affects your health. Ozone can cause shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing, fatigue, headaches, nausea, chest paint and eye and throat irritation.

Repeated exposure to ozone pollution may cause permanent lung damage. The lung damage caused by ozone exposure may be likened to the lung damage caused by cigarette smoking.

Even at very low levels, ground-level ozone can trigger a variety of health problems including aggravated asthma, reduced lung capacity, and increased susceptibility to respiratory illnesses such as pneumonia and bronchitis. On days when ozone levels are high, emergency room visits for asthma attacks have been shown to increase by as much as 36 percent.

Children are most at risk from exposure to ozone because they are often active outside during the summer and their respiratory systems are still developing. Pregnant women are also highly affected by air pollution and ground level ozone. Healthy adults of all ages who exercise or work outdoors are considered a high-risk group because they have a higher level of exposure to ozone than people who are less active outdoors.

Ozone can damage plants and sicken animals. Ground-level ozone reduces the agricultural yields for many economically important crops, such as soybeans, kidney beans, wheat and cotton. It interferes with the ability of plants to produce and store food, so that growth, production and overall plant health is compromised. One of the key components leading to the formation of ozone, nitrogen oxide, contributes to fish kills and algae blooms in sensitive waterways, like the Chesapeake Bay.

On bad air days the news media alerts the public to the problem. To the right is an Air Quality Action Guide regarding ozone health effects and how to avoid exposure and reduce air pollution for each category.

Since knowing how and why ozone forms and what you can do about it is important to the residents of our community. Since individual actions can make a difference, consider what works for you from the list below.

* TRIP CHAIN MORE OFTEN. Combine your errands into one trip and you'll get things done faster and reduce traffic congestion and air pollution. Motor vehicle emissions are the single greatest man-made contribution to ground level ozone pollution.

* TAKE MASS TRANSIT, SHARE A RIDE, or CARPOOL. Alternative commuting options, such as carpooling, bicycling, tele-working or using transit, not only help clean the air, but benefit individuals in other ways as well.

* WALK instead of driving. This is an easy way to get exercise and easy on the air.

* CARE FOR YOUR CAR: Regular maintenance and tune-ups, changing the oil, and checking tire inflation can improve gas mileage, extend your car's life, and increase its resale value. Maintenance can also reduce your car's emissions by more than half.

* GET FUEL WHEN IT'S COOL: Refueling during cooler periods of the day or in the evening can prevent gas fumes from heating up and creating ozone.

* DON'T TOP OFF THE TANK: Topping off releases gas fumes into the air and cancels the benefits of the pump's anti-pollution devices.

* OTHER STUFF YOU CAN DO: Avoid using household products with high levels of VOCs. Use environmentally safe paints and cleaning products whenever possible. Don't use gas-powered yard equipment _ use electric instead. Don't use charcoal lighter fluid when you barbecue. Use a charcoal chimney, electric starter or propane grill.

Editor's note: This article is courtesy of the Environmental Management Office here.

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