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  • Carol Jin

Stop Zoning Out, The Ozone Layer Needs Our Help!



Introduction

We all know and love oxygen gas, the diatomic molecule accredited for sustaining most of this planet’s life. But O2 isn’t the only form of oxygen (O) that keeps us alive: ozone (O3) is another crucial gas within our atmosphere that protects our general health! This article will inform you of ozone’s benefits (and its drawbacks), causes of the ozone layer’s breakdown, and how we can slow the rate of ozone depletion.


The Pros and Cons of Atmospheric Ozone

To truly appreciate ozone’s protective power, we should first know about the health hazard that ozone protects us from in the first place—ultraviolet radiation (UVR), which is naturally emitted by the Sun. UVR can benefit us by boosting our vitamin D production (vitamin D helps us to absorb more bone-building calcium from our food [1]), but overexposure to this type of solar radiation introduces heavy drawbacks including skin aging/wrinkling, sunburns, cataracts (cloudy lenses in the eyes that cause blurry vision), skin cancer, disrupted ecosystems, and reduced agricultural productivity! [2]


Now here’s where ozone comes into the picture: the Earth’s ozone layer filters out 100% of the most dangerous kind of UVR, called UVC, from our atmosphere so that it never reaches us in the first place! The two other kinds of UVR, called UVA and UVB, partially pass through the ozone layer and reach Earth’s surface but thankfully, they do not have as much destructive power as UVC (too much UVA and UVB exposure may still lead to all of the consequences listed in the previous paragraph, though) [1]. In short, the ozone layer is our atmospheric sunblock and shields us from the Sun’s most damaging radiation.


That being said, ozone can actually harm us if it’s in the wrong place, meaning if it’s not in the actual ozone layer. The ozone layer is supposed to be in the lower part of the stratosphere, a layer of Earth’s atmosphere which begins about 6 miles above our ground surface. Any ozone gas that resides below the stratosphere is in the troposphere, the atmospheric layer that we currently breathe within. This tropospheric ozone, which comes from vehicle and industrial smog, is harmful not only to the environment but also to our health because it is a greenhouse gas that damages/irritates lung tissue when inhaled. Luckily, 90% of our ozone is concentrated high up in the stratosphere where it should be [3], so let's focus on protecting this "good ozone"! 


This Photo by NC Climate Office is licensed under CC BY-SA.


What Damages the Ozone Layer

Have you ever experienced that slimy feeling of sunscreen running off your skin whenever you jump into a swimming pool too early? Now take that discomfort and direct it towards ozone layer depletion because that would be the environmental equivalent of our sunscreen rubbing off! 


The primary cause of stratospheric ozone breakdown is the emission of man-made chemicals called chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which are used for refrigerants and in aerosol spray cans, in our atmosphere. Usually, when ozone absorbs UV radiation there is a steady cycle: O3 breaks down into oxygen gas (O2) and single oxygen atoms (called free radicals), then those separated oxygen particles bond again into ozone in our stratosphere. But CFCs that rise into the stratosphere break ozone apart at a faster rate than oxygen and free radical oxygen atoms can naturally rebuild it, which has led to thinning ozone levels and even some unnaturally large ozone holes in the past, allowing excessive UV radiation to reach Earth’s surface. 


CFCs do not single-handedly destroy our ozone layer—there are other chemicals such as halon from fire extinguishers and hydrofluorocarbons (HCFCs) from refrigerants/insulating agents that contribute to ozone breakdown. However, CFCs are by far the most prominent culprit: a single chlorine atom from CFCs can break apart more than 100,000 ozone molecules [4]! If such tiny atoms can so strongly steer the well-being of our planet, then how can we personally minimize our contribution to ozone layer depletion?


Caption: Causes and Effects of Having an Ozone Hole


How We Can Optimize Ozone Conditions

Here are some ways that we can protect our ozone layer and reduce man-made tropospheric ozone emissions; you may be surprised as to how generic some of these tips are! [5]

  • No one’s laughing when it comes to vehicles’ fossil fuel emissions: Nitrous oxide, commonly known as laughing gas, is another contributor to ozone depletion. It typically escapes into the atmosphere as a product of fuel combustion, so using forms of transportation that don’t emit nitrous oxide or any other harmful substances into the atmosphere can help preserve our ozone layer! With this same logic, I also encourage you to buy foods seasonally/locally: this ensures that your produce hasn’t traveled long distances in trucks that release huge clouds of polluting smoke from their exhaust pipes. 


  • Avoid corrosive cleaning solvents: Many cleaning products contain harsh chemical solvents that naturally react with sunlight to form ground-level ozone (the lung irritant, remember?). Some non-toxic alternatives you can use the next time you clean the house are vinegar or baking soda.


  • Maintain your air conditioners: When I mentioned earlier that CFCs are commonly used in refrigerants, this includes air conditioners. Malfunctioning air conditioners may leak CFCs into the atmosphere, so make sure to regularly maintain your AC and other similar appliances!


Here’s some good news to end this article with—in 2019, NASA found that the ozone hole looming over Antarctica had shrunk to its smallest size since its first discovery in 1982 (hurray!). This is thanks to international treaties such as the Montreal Protocol that have gradually been phasing out the production of CFCs. Still, let’s not lose our guard and continue to seek environmental excellence.


Thank you for reading! With our help, the world can make a U-Turn for the better.

Note: Bracketed numbers next to certain texts (e.g. [1], [2], etc.) indicate that the aforementioned information in the article is derived from the corresponding source in the References below.



References

[1] UV Radiation. (2020, June 08). Retrieved July 22, 2020, from https://www.cdc.gov/nceh/features/uv-radiation-safety/index.html

[2] Dunbar, B. (n.d.). Ozone: What is it, and why do we care about it? Retrieved July 22, 2020, from https://www.nasa.gov/audience/foreducators/postsecondary/features/F_Ozone.html

[3] The Ozone Layer. (n.d.). Retrieved July 23, 2020, from https://scied.ucar.edu/ozone-layer

[4] Frequently Asked Questions about the Ozone Layer. (2018, September 24). Retrieved July 23, 2020, from https://www.epa.gov/ozone-layer-protection/frequently-asked-questions-about -ozone-layer

[5] 5 Ways to Protect the Ozone Layer. (n.d.). Retrieved July 23, 2020, from https://nuttyscientists.com/blog/5-ways-to-protect-the-ozone-layer/

[6] Blumberg, S. (2019, October 21). 2019 Ozone Hole is the Smallest on Record Since Its Discovery. Retrieved July 23, 2020, from https://www.nasa.gov/feature/goddard/2019/2019-ozone-hole-is-the-smallest-on-record-since-its-discovery

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