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This Common Air Pollutant Spikes in Summer

Working in heat and humidity is no picnic, but it can be especially hard on someone with respiratory issues. If you have asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), emphysema or any other condition that affects your ability to breathe, it is crucial to pay attention to the weather this time of year and take precautions.

Outdoor concrete workThe reason is ozone, which can be good or bad for your health and the environment depending on its location in the atmosphere and what it consists of. Stratospheric or “good ozone” is a naturally occurring gas that forms a protective layer between the Earth and the sun. Tropospheric or ground-level “bad ozone” is a pollutant that forms when emissions from fuel-burning sources react to heat and sunlight, and it has a major role in why summer can be challenging for people with breathing problems. (Ground-level ozone also damages crops, trees and other vegetation. In the United States alone, it is responsible for an estimated $500 million in reduced crop production each year.)

Common sources of ground-level ozone include emissions from cars and other gasoline-powered vehicles and equipment, smokestacks and paints, stains and solvents. This “bad ozone,” which is commonly referred to as smog, can develop in cold weather, but levels tend to be highest between June and September when temperatures often reach the high 80s and 90s. It can also be transported by wind, leading to health problems in distant communities.

Exposure to ground-level ozone can constrict the airways, causing wheezing and shortness of breath. Humidity adds to these difficulties. Humid air contains more moisture and less oxygen, making it heavier and harder to breathe.

People with respiratory issues are likely to experience these effects first, but exposure is unhealthy for everyone. Children playing outside, older adults (more likely to have pre-existing lung disease) and people working outdoors, as many construction workers do, are at increased risk for becoming ill from breathing ozone-polluted air.

Exposure to ground-level ozone can cause:

  • Pain when taking a deep breath
  • Inflamed airways
  • Coughing and scratchy throat
  • Aggravated existing lung diseases such as asthma, emphysema and chronic bronchitis
  • Lungs more susceptible to infection even when symptoms have disappeared

While you can’t control the weather, you can minimize its effects on your health this time of year by:

  • Always having your quick-relief medications on hand if you have a respiratory condition like asthma or COPD.
  • Having air-conditioning in your home to reduce your exposure to air polluted with ozone. Install window units if your home does not have central air.

You can also help to reduce ground-level ozone by:

  • When possible, refueling gasoline-powered vehicles and equipment in the evening so fuel vapors will have less chance to get cooked by the day’s high temperatures and turn into ozone.
  • Carpooling to reduce harmful emissions.
  • Tightly capping solvents (gasoline, paint thinners, strippers, degreasers) and storing them in a cool place to avoid evaporation.

Ground-level ozone can fluctuate throughout the day. Sometimes it may be possible to schedule certain work tasks when levels are low. You can find out more about community air quality conditions by going to and entering your zip code at the top of the page.

The LHSFNA’s Sun Sense Plus program can help educate Laborers about other hot weather hazards such as heat stress and increased sun exposure, which can cause skin cancer. These materials are listed on the Fund’s Sun Sense Plus 2016 page and can be ordered by calling the Fund’s Health Promotion Division at 202-628-5465.

[Janet Lubman Rathner]

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