Definition of Ozone

What Is Ozone?

When atmospheric oxygen comes in contact with an electric discharge or exposure to atmospheric radiation, it can form ozone or O3. Ozone can be found in the earth’s lower and upper atmospheres. In the lower atmosphere it presents direct harm to the respiratory system and becomes an air pollutant when mixed with man made pollution. However, ozone in the upper atmosphere (stratosphere) serves as a defense layer, protecting the earth from the sun’s ultraviolet light.

Ground-level ozone occurs when ozone is present in the lower atmosphere as a secondary pollutant where it combines in a photochemical reaction with other pollutants. When this occurs, it is considered smog, which can be highly toxic to human and environmental health.

Ozone found in the stratosphere is very beneficial for the earth as it helps to reduce the UV-B radiation, which can be potentially dangerous to both human and non-humans on earth. Though moderate exposure to UV-B radiation aids in the necessary production of Vitamin D for mammals like humans, overexposure can be quite dangerous causing serious health problems such as cataract formation, photoaging, blindness, sunburn, diminished immune response, and skin cancer. Sunscreens help to protect against overexposure to UV-B radiation at the level of the skin, but other human health and environmental concerns related to the use of conventional sunscreens make protection from the sun tricky, at best.

UV-B radiation also has a deleterious impact on crops and agriculture. Some plant species are sensitive to UV-B exposure, and with the rapid depletion of the ozone layer in some parts of the globe, certain plants, including food crops, may not be feasible in years to come. Certain aquatic species are also sensitive to rising levels of UV-B radiation.

Some human-caused pollution over the past few decades has contributed to the depletion of the ozone layer in the stratosphere. In particular, humans have released massive quantities of ozone-depleting compounds like hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), and even chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which are all used as refrigerants in air conditioners, refrigerators, and other cooling appliances. The Montreal Protocol, using essentially a cap and trade system for lowering pollutants like HFCs and HCFCs, has gone to great lengths to reduce the emission of ozone depleting substances since 1987.

Climate change has a direct impact on the ozone layer. Higher levels of carbon dioxide mixed with the natural system of the troposphere (lower level of the earth’s atmosphere) warming and the stratosphere (upper level) cooling causes cloud cover and rainfall patterns to change. This also causes changes in the amounts of ice and snow in polar and sub-polar regions. All of these natural systems help to attenuate the penetration of solar radiation but could be negatively impacted with a thinner ozone layer.

Ozone is used for a variety of purposes, such as:

  • As an oxidizing agent in the sterilization of drinking and swimming pool water
  • In the preparation of pharmaceuticals and synthetic lubricants
  • Disinfection of laundry, food machines, and spas
  • Deodorizing air and objects
  • Remove spores and yeast from industrial equipment as well as fruits and vegetables
  • Eliminating bacteria on contact surfaces, food products, and fabrics
  • Consumer air purifiers, food sanitation devices, water purification systems, and home disinfectants

Determining safe levels of ozone in these types of applications, however, is an ongoing debate.

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