During the summer, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) may issue Air Quality Alerts when a combination of warmer temperatures and elevated ground-level ozone makes for unhealthy conditions outside.

So, what does that mean for you? Read on for information about the symptoms, who’s most at risk, and how to protect yourself.

Skip to a section: What is ozone? | What are the dangers? | Who’s at risk? | Steps you can take

What is Ozone?

According to the DEM, ozone is a colorless gas that can be found throughout the earth’s atmosphere. In the upper atmosphere, ozone exists naturally and shields the earth from the sun’s ultraviolet rays.

At ground level, however, ozone is formed as a result of chemical reactions caused by the presence of nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

The primary sources of VOCs and nitrogen oxides are automobile and industrial emissions. These compounds react with oxygen in the air in the presence of heat and strong sunlight to produce ground-level ozone, the primary ingredient of smog.

What are the dangers?

The R.I. Department of Health says unhealthy levels of ozone can cause:

  • Throat irritation
  • Coughing
  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Increased susceptibility to respiratory infection
  • Aggravation of asthma and other respiratory ailments

These symptoms can be worsened by exercise and heavy activity, according to health officials. To avoid experiencing these effects, you should:

  • Limit outdoor exercise and other strenuous activity
  • Stay in an air-conditioned environment if possible during the afternoon and evening hours, when ozone levels are highest
  • Schedule outdoor exercise and children’s outdoor activities in the morning hours

In addition, individuals who experience respiratory symptoms may wish to consult their doctors.


Who’s most at risk?

While everyone can be affected by poor air quality, some people are more susceptible, including:

  • Children
  • The elderly
  • People with underlying lung diseases, such as asthma
  • People who work or exercise outdoors

As ozone levels increase, the number of people affected and the severity of the health effects also increase. The DEM says at the highest levels — an AQI between 201 and 300 — everyone should avoid being outdoors, if possible.

Steps you can take

There are ways you can help reduce ground-level ozone, according to the DEM:

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  • Limit driving
    • Avoid unnecessary trips
    • Carpool, walk or ride the bus or a bicycle whenever possible
  • Minimize starts and avoid unnecessary acceleration
    • Vehicle emissions are highest during starting and acceleration
  • Reduce idling
    • Avoid congested traffic and lines at drive-through windows
  • Drive your lowest-emission vehicle
    • Use the most fuel-efficient — usually the newest — car you have
  • Maintain your vehicle
    • Get a tune-up at the beginning of each summer
  • Minimize lawnmower emissions
    • Tune up your lawnmower
    • Use electric or hand-powered equipment if possible
  • Limit use of solvent-based household products
    • Use water-based or low solvent paints, varnishes, cleaners, and personal care products
  • Limit barbecue emissions
    • Use an electric starter instead of lighter fluid to start charcoal fires
    • Use an electric, natural gas, or propane grill

Other Resources

  • DEM Air Quality Forecast
  • DEM’s daily air quality readings: (401) 222-2808
  • American Lung Association’s air pollution or lung health information: 1-800-LUNG-USA
  • State clean air programs: (401) 222-2808