Ozone is found in two regions of the Earth's atmosphere—at ground level and in the upper regions of the atmosphere. Both types of ozone have the same chemical composition (O3). While upper atmospheric ozone protects the earth from the sun's harmful rays, ground-level ozone is the main component of smog.
Tropospheric, or ground level ozone, is not emitted directly into the air, but is created by chemical reactions between oxides of nitrogen (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOC). Ozone is likely to reach unhealthy levels on hot sunny days in urban environments. Ozone can also be transported long distances by wind. For this reason, even rural areas can experience high ozone levels.
Ground level ozone—breathable air—is harmful to health. Even relatively low levels of ozone can cause health effects. People with lung disease, children, older adults, and people who are active outdoors may be particularly sensitive to ozone. Children are at greatest risk from exposure to ozone, because their lungs are still developing and they are more likely to be active outdoors when ozone levels are high, which increases their exposure. Children are also more likely than adults to have asthma.
Ozone also affects sensitive vegetation and ecosystems, including forests, parks, wildlife refuges, and wilderness areas. In particular, ozone harms sensitive vegetation, including trees and plants during the growing season.
Emissions from industrial facilities and electric utilities, motor vehicle exhaust, gasoline vapors, and chemical solvents are some of the major sources of NOx and VOC. Under the Clean Air Act, EPA has established health and environmentally protective standards for ozone in the air we breathe. States have put programs into place to cut NOx and VOC emissions from vehicles, industrial facilities, and electric utilities in areas of states that don’t meet the standards. Programs are also aimed at reducing pollution by reformulating fuels and consumer/commercial products, such as paints and chemical solvents that contain VOC.