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Air Pollution Is Dangerous, but Deadly?

Long-Term Ozone Exposure Boosts Risk for Lung-Related Death, Study Shows

Cities With the Highest Ozone Levels

The risk of dying from respiratory causes rises up to 4% for every 10 parts-per-billion increase in exposure to ozone, the study says. Jerrett tells WebMD that over the 18-year study period, Riverside, Calif., had the highest daily average maximum concentration at 104 parts per billion, which “corresponded to a 50% increased risk of dying from lung disease compared to no exposure” to ozone.

He adds that in general, cities in the Northeast had lower ozone than California. New York had a 25% increased risk of lung-related death and Washington, D.C., came in at 27%, compared to 43% in Los Angeles.

The lowest ozone concentrations were recorded in San Francisco.

Charlotte-Gastonia, N.C., Chattanooga, Tenn., Raleigh, N.C., and Richmond, Va., were among the most ozone-rich areas in the South.

Limiting Exposure to Ozone Air Pollution

A clear message to the public, Jerrett says, is that exercise during the sunniest time of the day should be avoided by people who live in warm climates. He also says it’s smart to keep windows closed when ozone levels are highest, and it’s just not good to spend more time outside than indoors when levels of the gas are high.

Cherry Wongtrakool, MD, a pulmonologist and professor at the Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, says “you need particulates to have ozone, which depends on sunlight.”

Plus, ozone is more seasonal, occurring at highest levels from spring to fall. She recommends commuting less and exercising, but not around busy streets in warm weather.

“Thirty percent is a very alarming number,” she says.

As for governments, Jerrett says, they should take steps to reduce traffic congestion, perhaps by offering financial incentives to carpoolers, increasing high-occupancy lanes, encouraging the use of hybrid cars and maybe even by discouraging driving with higher gas taxes.

Jerrett says studies have shown that high ozone levels can cause problems quickly, and that reports on ozone levels, which can often be found in newspapers or on the Internet, should be consulted by people considering outdoor exercise.

Janice E. Nolen of the American Lung Association says the study suggests that “even low-ozone days kill people early” and that “controls have to be put on cars and power plants” to deal with this.

Ozone, she says, “is a huge problem around the country. Your lungs are getting repeatedly assaulted.”

But the problem isn’t insurmountable, Jerrett says, noting a recent New England Journal of Medicine study reporting that the average life expectancy in 51 U.S. cities had increased nearly three years between 1980 and 2000, with up to five months of that a result of decreased air pollution.

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