Summer bummer: The air we breathe may be damaging our lungs


A traffic jam. By smith, via Flickr.

Summer is ozone season in places like Michigan.

When it gets hot, state agencies will sometimes issue ozone warnings. They advise people to avoid the outdoors, where chemicals from car exhaust and other combustion sources can mix in the air and create ground level ozone.

This isn’t the good type of ozone that protects the Earth. It’s the bad type that can burn the insides of your lungs, and shorten your life.

But at least there are standards, and warnings to protect us, right?

Kind of. Research from the University of California Davis suggests that air deemed “clean” by national standards can still be unsafe to breathe.

Even when there isn’t a warning, the air you inhale can have a significant and negative effect on your lung function.

In short, the standards aren’t stringent enough.

“Specifically, we found that 6.6 hours exposure to mean ozone concentrations as low as 70 parts per billion have a significant negative effect on lung function,” says Edward Schelegle, one of the researchers.

That’s 70 parts per billion, and the current national standards allow concentrations of up to 75 ppb over an eight-hour period.

When the EPA set the 75 ppb standard in 2008, under the Bush administration, it was criticized as not being protective enough. An EPA scientific committee recommended a standard of 60-70 ppb.

The University of California Davis results are published in the Aug. 1 issue of the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.

If nothing else, you can breathe a little easier knowing that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is paying attention.

James C. Brown, an agency official, authored an editorial to go along with the study results, but said further research is needed “to better characterize the susceptibility in some healthy individuals, to the effects of short-term ozone exposures.”

The study abstract and a link to the full text are at the journal web site.

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