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Wildfires across much of California and Nevada increased ground-level ozone to high levels.
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Health Standards Exceeded by Ozone Pollution in Wildfires
News story originally written on October 9, 2008

Scientists from the National Center of Atmospheric Research (NCAR) have published a new paper about how wildfires affect air pollution. They have learned that wildfires make ozone levels high enough to cause problems for humans and the environment.

The scientists focused on California wildfires that broke out in September and October 2007. They learned that the wildfires caused ground-level ozone to spike to unhealthy levels across a large area, including much of rural California as well as neighboring Nevada.

Fires make ozone levels higher because they release chemicals called nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbons. These chemicals react with sunlight and can form ozone near the fire or far downwind of the fire. Ozone that is found higher up in the atmosphere (in the stratosphere) helps life on Earth by blocking ultraviolet radiation from the Sun, but ozone in the lower atmosphere can trigger a number of health problems. These include coughing, throat irritation, and making asthma, bronchitis, and emphysema worse. Ozone pollution also damages crops and other plants.

"It's important to understand the health impacts of wildfires," says NCAR scientist Gabriele Pfister. "We found that ozone can hit unhealthy levels even in places where you are not seeing any smoke."

Last modified January 27, 2009 by Becca Hatheway.

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