Cold, allergies -- or ozone? Valley catches air pollution - East Valley Tribune: Health

Cold, allergies -- or ozone? Valley catches air pollution

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Posted: Monday, August 20, 2012 6:15 am | Updated: 5:32 pm, Tue Aug 21, 2012.

In the 1990s, it seemed concern for the ozone layer was everywhere, leading to plenty of studies on skin cancer and environmental worries. Now, it seems every week an ozone warning is issued by the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality.

And with the warnings come sneezing, headaches, and coughs.

So what is ozone -- and how is it affecting our health?

Ozone is a type of oxygen molecule. While the type of oxygen molecule used to breathe is two oxygen atoms bonded together, ozone has three.

As a part of the atmosphere, ozone can protect life on Earth by blocking out ultraviolet rays; on the ground level, it can be a hazardous toxin, according to the ADEQ.

“Ozone season starts the first of April and (continues) through the end of September,” said Mark Shaffer, ADEQ spokesman. “It tends to be less of a problem as we get into fall.”

“The reason it’s more prevalent in the summer is that it’s almost like a cooking process,” he added.

Ozone pollution is caused when certain compounds found in car emissions interact with sunlight and heat, he said.

But ozone hasn’t always been a problem for the Valley.

“It’s really been a problem ever since the rapid growth of Phoenix,” Shaffer said. “But it’s actually 6 percent less than it was 25 years ago. Cars are a lot cleaner these days. And while monsoons can settle much of the dust in the air, rainstorms usually don’t have a significant impact on ozone levels.

Ozone is known to affect your lungs, said Diane Eckles, the chief of the Office of Environmental Health at Arizona Department of Health Services.

“Mainly, it affects the respiratory system,” she said. “It can be troublesome for those with asthma or emphysema. Over time it can damage your lungs.”

Since Aug. 11, NextCare Urgent Care, an health care provider with six locations in the East Valley, has seen a nearly 50 percent increase in patients complaining of two types of infections, according to Janelle Brannock, NextCare spokeswoman.

The urgent care centers have seen a rise in acute nasopharyngitis, a viral infection of the upper respiratory system (known as the common cold), and acute pharyngitis, which occurs most commonly with a viral upper respiratory infection and includes sore throat, she said.

“Ozone can be a cause,” said Dr. Michael Kaplan, NextCare regional medical director. “Some of those symptoms fit, especially for children with asthma or elderly folks with COPD.”

The best way to limit exposure to ozone is by staying out of it, and that means not exercising outside during ozone warnings, Kaplan said.

The precautions are especially important for younger or older people with respiratory problems.

“In the summer, it’s an occasional problem, not a chronic problem,” Kaplan said.

But if you are experiencing any severe respiratory problems, see a health professional, Kaplan said.

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