Ozone Pollution in the Summertime

Written by Ilke
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summersmogIn the winter, we talk about winter smog. In the summer, ozone pollution is the one to watch. Winter smog and ozone pollution are very different in nature, but both are related to man-made pollution. The good news is that we all can contribute and help to prevent these phenomena. The summer ozone, however, needs a much more long term approach. What is it about?

We all know ozone (O3) from the hole in the ozone layer: the “good” kind of ozone protecting us. But ozone is also present it the lower strata of the atmosphere, and you might even know its smell: you can smell it strongly after lightning or in a closed room with lots of printers and computers running. The ozone pollution we are talking about stems from high concentrations of ozone at the ground level part of the atmosphere which are heated by the sun. This in combination with polluted air creates the “bad” ozone. So what you need for the “bad” cocktail are the following ingredients:

  1. Lots of sun, or rather UV radiation;
  2. Heat, and that means 25 degrees Celsius and above;
  3. Pollution, with nitrogen oxides (NO) and volatile organic compounds (VOC) which are in fact chemicals, like solvents;
  4. Wind, the one coming from the continent (S, SE and E) and with low speed or dropping to wind stillness;
  5. Continuation of these conditions for more than a few days.

Because of the high temperatures needed, the phenomena only occurs in Belgium between May and August (sometimes also in April or September). Of course, it is not just a Belgian problem: other countries with the same conditions will have an ozone peak as well.

What is the harm?

It is harmful for our health because it can make you feel rather unwell. Sensitive people, like asthma and heart patients, elderly people and children might even have more problems. The first signs are being short of breath, irritated eyes, nose, and throat. The next level of symptoms would be head ache, nausea, dizziness, and pain in the chest, coughing, and persons already suffering from respiratory tract or heart problems need to be very careful. The way you will react depends very much on the concentration levels in the air, on the duration of exposure to it, on the individual sensitivity to it, and on your level of physical activity on such days (e.g. jogging).

How to protect yourself on peak days

Check the website of IRCELINE or the media for ozone warnings or be alert on continuous hot days with little or without wind. You can also ask to be sent an email with a pollution warning by adding your name to the IRCELINE mailing list - just write a message to This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . The concentrations tend to be almost double as high outside as inside. The worst time is from 12.00 until 8.00 pm, so one should air the rooms before or after this peak period. One should avoid heavy physical activities on those days. If you really are sensitive, you should stay indoors as much as possible until the peak is over. There is also a difference in ozone depending on where you are: cities have less ozone concentrations than the country side and a breeze at the seaside might blow it all away.

What is done to prevent ozone peaks?

The problem is that ozone is a very volatile matter so one cannot catch it and store it. It might also sound like a contradiction, but the pollution by traffic - or rather their NO emissions - actually neutralizes the ozone in the air (and turns it into less harmful NO2). That explains why the ozone concentrations are higher at the country side. It also explains why cutting down on car pollution on ozone peak days will not help, on the contrary. Actually, not much can be done on the peak days itself, and this is another difference with the so-called winter smog. In a broader perspective, what needs to be done is:

  1. Drastic cuts in pollution causing the bad ozone problem (NO and VOC)
  2. Measures applied to the whole of Europe and not only to Belgium
  3. Measures during the WHOLE year and not during peaks.

The EU is luckily aware of this and they have approved guidelines (NEC) to cut down on pollution leading to the ozone problem. As from 2010, these guidelines will hopefully show an improvement of the situation. You can read more on the measures taken by the Belgian authorities on their website (under environment, ozone, and then “what Belgium does”).

What can you do?

That is the good news! We can already do something today and it does not require big changes, just small steps! However, as we saw above, these steps should preferably be implemented all year round. Here are some suggestions to choose from:

  1. Leave the car at home! Just give it a try to walk, take the bike or public transport of small distances ; car sharing with parents at school can mean a cut by 50% of your car use; maybe learn how to eco-drive.
  2. If you buy a car, consider a smaller, less polluting one;
  3. Try a local holiday! Taking the car instead of the airplane or the train instead of the car; taking the bike with you on the car or train; all little things help!
  4. Choose cleaning products with an eco-label!
  5. Do not use products, like glue, ink, painting, thinners, and varnish, or print work which include solvents (“oplosmiddelen” or “solventen” in Dutch, “solvants” in French)! Try to look for water based products and those with a European eco-label;
  6. Make sure your heating system is efficient and have it checked regularly for maintenance!
  7. Reduce your waste and recycle: the burning of waste causes 1/3 of the pollution problems related to ozone peaks (see also feature on children’s parties for more suggestions).

More info is available at IRCELINE on predictions and warnings. The Ministry of Health has more details on ozone in Belgium. The Brussels Environment Institute (Dutch and French only) has a “pollumeter” on their website showing a daily measurement of pollution in Brussels.

This article was published by Sunbeams in the July 2009 edition of its newsletter.

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