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Watch for ozone alerts as summer heats up

As hot summer days become the norm in the coming weeks, you may begin to hear about “ozone alerts” on the news or see it posted on KC Scout signs on the interstate. What is an ozone alert and what should residents do to protect themselves?

What is ozone?
Ozone is a chemical gas that is both naturally occurring and a man-made byproduct of modern life. You’ve probably heard of the ozone layer in the atmosphere, where ozone reduces the amount of harmful UV radiation that reaches the Earth’s surface. However, ozone can also be produced at the Earth’s surface, where it contributes to what we experience as “smog.”

At high enough levels, ozone can affect the quality of the air we breathe. An ozone alert day occurs when ozone levels become high enough to make breathing difficult for vulnerable populations. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has established health standards for ozone in order to protect human health.

Ozone is the only one of the main air pollutants that is not exhausted from a tailpipe or a smokestack. Certain chemicals, such as those in gasoline, oil-based paints or printing inks, are released to the atmosphere from their sources. These chemicals drift with the wind, react with heat and sunlight and are converted to ozone. Consequently, these chemicals may be released in Johnson County and become ozone by the time they reach downtown Kansas City or KCI.

The most likely occurrence of ozone formation is hot, sunny summer days with little to no wind, making ozone alerts far more common in the summer months. The official “ozone season” for Kansas City is March 1 through Oct. 31, but ozone alerts most often occur from June through August.

Poor air quality may be most noticed by the elderly, children, and people with lung and heart problems that can cause difficulty breathing. On ozone alert days, it is recommended that these vulnerable groups avoid strenuous outdoor activities and stay indoors as much as possible. If being outside is unavoidable, try to schedule activities before 11 a.m. or after 8 p.m.

You can help improve our air quality
The good news is that we can all do our part to reduce ozone in the summer, by small yet significant modifications to our behavior. These modifications do not cost you any money, just a personal change.  Throughout the summer months, and especially on ozone days, try these strategies to help reduce ground-level ozone in our community:

  • Drive less. Carpool, bike, walk or take public transit to work. At work, try teleconferencing instead of driving to meetings or carpool to lunch.
  • Avoid fueling on ozone alert days – simply filling your vehicle with gasoline can lead to pollution as fumes escape and react with sunlight to form ozone. If you must fill up, try to do so after dusk. And never top off your tank! Doing so forces fumes into the air.  
  • Mow later in the day. Lawn and garden equipment alone is responsible for an estimated 9% of the Kansas City metro’s ozone-forming emissions. Avoid yard work that involves power equipment until the ozone alert is over.

This summer, keep the air quality in mind when you plan your activities for hot summer days. Stay safe and do your part to keep our air clean for all residents to enjoy!

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