Ozone Exposure and Your Heart

By Jing Zhang

Illustration of heart and lungsI couldn’t imagine living in a world where buildings are filled with thick cigarette smoke, but smokeless buildings haven’t always been the norm. Many things today, such as washing hands to avoid spreading germs, were previously not the norm and are the result of scientific findings uncovered years ago.

EPA researchers and scientists are constantly conducting studies to make important advances in improving human health and the environment. One such EPA study was recently published in the American Heart Association journal Circulation. (Read the press release.)

According to the study, breathing in ozone can be harmful to both your lungs and your heart.

For years, air pollutants, including ozone, have been known to harm the lungs. The EPA ozone study shows that breathing in ozone can cause inflammation of the vascular system, a change in heart rate variability, and a reduction in the ability of blood clots to dissolve, which are risk factors for heart disease.  The study also confirmed the ability of ozone to impact lung inflammation and function.

It amazes me how a seemingly simple molecule composed of three tiny oxygen atoms can impact lung and heart health! Where does this tiny yet harmful air pollutant come from?

As it turns out, ozone is in two areas of the earth’s atmosphere. Ozone exists naturally in the upper regions of the atmosphere, where it protects the earth from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays. Ozone found at the ground level is created from the mixture of nitrogen oxides (NOx), volatile organic compounds (VOC), and sunlight. The NOx and VOC emissions come from sources including industrial facilities, electric utilities, and vehicle exhausts.

Because sunlight is a key factor in creating ground-level ozone, sunny days can create unhealthy levels of ozone in urban areas. Some people, including children, older adults, and those with preexisting heart or lung conditions, are at greatest risk from exposure to ozone.

In order to protect your health, use EPA’s Air Quality Index, which forecasts air quality on a daily basis, and minimize time spent outside on high ozone days.

The recently-released EPA study paves the way for further research on the health effects of exposure to ozone. With more discoveries, the impacts of ozone on health may become as widely known as the impacts of cigarette smoke on health. In the meantime, EPA scientists are continuously conducting cutting-edge research to protect your heart from outdoor air pollution and environmental effects.

To learn more about EPA air research, vistit: www.epa.gov/airscience

About the author: Jing Zhang is a student services contractor working on the Science Communications Team in EPA’s the Office of Research and Development.