As strange as it may sound to some Saline County residents, the level of ozone readings this summer poses a real threat to the local community.
In fact, Wednesday marked the seventh day that an Ozone Action Advisory — indicating that prolonged outdoor exertion is unhealthy for sensitive groups such as children, elderly and people with asthma — has been issued this year. Wednesday was also the fifth consecutive day for the advisory, and representatives of the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality said that the ozone readings in three different locations have surpassed the national standard.
The threat is so real in Central Arkansas that Metroplan and prominent leaders — including Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola, North Little Rock Mayor Patrick Hays, Pulaski County Judge Buddy Villines, other community mayors and county judges, and representatives of the Arkansas State Highway Transportation Department and Central Arkansas Transit — held a public meeting early Wednesday concerning the 2012 ozone season.
Marsha Guffey, a resident of Bauxite and staff member of Metroplan, explained that those at the meeting represent the Ozone Action Days, which is a public awareness program of Metroplan in partnership with ADEQ, AHTD, Environmental Protection Agency and the Arkansas Department of Health. Other program participants include the Arkansas Clean Cities Coalition, Arkansas Energy Office, Arkansas Environmental Federation, Arkansas Respiratory Health Association, Central Arkansas Transit Authority, City of Little Rock, Entergy Services, Federal Highway Administration, the National Weather Service, and Pulaski County.
The Central Arkansas Ozone Action Days program applies to the Central Arkansas area, which includes the counties of Pulaski, Faulkner, Lonoke and Saline.
"With this expected hot and dry summer, it is going to make a bad summer for the ozone (level)," Guffey said. "The idea is for people to limit production of bad chemicals early in the day."
She said that even something as commonplace as a person mowing the lawn early in the day can cause an ozone danger. Not only is the ozone bad for a person's health, but also affects plant life.
According to www.ozoneactiondays.org , "Ground-level ozone interferes with the ability of plants to produce and store food so that growth, reproduction, and overall plant health are compromised. By weakening sensitive vegetation, ozone makes plants more susceptible to disease, pests, and environmental stresses."
The website added that ground level ozone is "created when pollutants mix with sunlight and gain in potency as they cook throughout the day. To most effectively reduce your role in the emissions that lead to ozone creation, consider avoiding emission-producing activities in the early morning hours that can lead to harmful afternoon ozone."
"I know it seems backwards," Guffey said, but she is promoting that people do outside chores, or even grilling or refueling a vehicle late in the day or even in the evening rather than in the early mornings. It is about rethinking daily activities to limit outdoor exposure, even before the temperatures sore.
According to www.ozoneactiondays.org , "Ground-level ozone is the bad type of ozone that is created when pollutants such as vehicle exhaust, chemical solvents and industrial emissions mix with sunlight. Breathing this type of ozone can cause a number of problems including chest pain, coughing, throat irritation, and congestion."
Esperanza Massana, account executive for a Little Rock advertising firm, said that on this website, a person can also sign up for a daily email about not only the ozone level for the day, but also a forecast for the next day. She said that the email is generally sent out about 2 p.m. daily and that there are color codes showing the threat level. She explained that Central Arkansas has been in the Orange Code for the past five days; that is one step below Code Red, which means the Ozone Advisory is elevated to an Ozone Alert "indicating that prolonged outdoor exertion is unhealthy for everyone."
"I've been involved with (Ozone Action Days Advisory) for three years, and I haven't seen it as bad as it is now," Massana said. "People should try to leave their cars at home if possible or at least make all the errands (involving driving) all at once if possible. Basically the fumes from vehicles combines with the hot air, and it creates a health hazard."
She said that high levels of ozone can be "equivalent to a sunburn in your lungs." That is why while under the Orange Code, it is advised that people take "actions to reduce the formation of high ozone concentrations"; and if you read the Code Red, it states, "Actions to reduce the formation of high ozone concentrations should be taken the day before a code red day, as well as on code red days."
Ozone can even cause permanent lung damage. At the very least, ozone can aggravate chronic lung diseases, like bronchitis and emphysema, and reduce the immune system's ability to fight off bacterial infections in the respiratory system. Also, because ozone can make people more sensitive to allergens, high ozone levels can trigger more asthma attacks and doctor visits, according to www.ozoneactiondays.org . The website also notes that "ozone damage can occur without any noticeable signs, particularly in individuals that are exposed to high concentrations for several days in a row. Ozone exposure can continue to cause lung damage even when symptoms have disappeared."
The website also states that the ozone concentrations are more likely to exceed health standards when the temperatures are above 90 degrees, particularly on sunny days with little or no wind.
"The stagnant air masses, which often occur in late summer, also tend to trap and hold ozone near the surface," www.ozoneactiondays.org  reads. "High ozone concentrations usually occur between 10:00 a.m. and 8:00 p.m., with the worst times often occurring during the mid-to-late afternoon hours."
Guffey noted that there are simple things that people can do, besides staying indoors as much as possible during an Ozone Advisory, such as "taking a lunch to work so that you don't have to get out and drive during the hot part of the day."
The U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration recently listed 10 simple steps to improve air quality, which can reduce ozone levels. These are:
•Trip chain more often — Combine errands into one trip. It helps if you get things done efficiently while reducing traffic congestion and air pollution. Starting a car after it has been sitting for more than an hour causes up to five times more pollution than starting up when the engine is warm.
•Take mass transit, share a ride, or carpool — Just once or twice a week, you’ll reduce traffic congestion and pollution and save money. The average driver spends more than 50 cents per mile, including the cost of car ownership and maintenance.
•Ride a bicycle — Vehicles on the road create more than 25 percent of all air pollution nationwide.
Other ideas in the 10 simple steps includes: walking or in-line skating; have regular maintenance and tune-ups on vehicles; refuel on cooler days or in the evenings; telecommute "work at home when you can" or "get travel and transit updates before leaving home"; spread the word; and it is suggested to not "top off" a fuel tank because it "release gas fumes into the air, which cancels the benefits of the pump’s anti-pollution devices. So, stop at the click and prevent gas spillage—it’s safer and reduces pollution."
Guffey also suggests that people use gas-powered equipment such as lawnmowers, weed-eaters, trimmers or blowers late in the day.
For tips on how to help reduce ozone formation and to view the daily ozone forecast, visit www.ozoneactiondays.org  or call Metroplan at 501-372-3300 to also learn how to receive a daily fax of ozone forecast.