‘Very high’ pollution caused by heatwave could trigger headaches and asthma attacks

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St. Paul’s Cathedral is seen among the skyline through the smog in 2011. (AFP via Getty Images)
St. Paul’s Cathedral is seen among the skyline through the smog in 2011. (AFP via Getty Images)

Scientists have warned that “very high levels” of ozone pollution that can cause headaches and increase the risk of asthma attacks could affect large swathes of Europe as temperatures spike.

The EU-funded Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service has warned that high levels of surface ozone pollution in Southern Europe, due to the heatwave, could now affect northwestern regions in the coming days.

In mid-July, surface ozone levels, which peak during the middle of the day, reached “unhealthy levels” in Portugal, Spain and Italy, the service said. Concentrations are now rising across northern and western parts of Europe as temperatures soar and are predicted to peak by Wednesday before easing off.

While a higher ozone layer in what is known as the stratosphere helps protect life on earth, at the earth’s surface, ozone is an air pollutant and greenhouse gas that is one of the main elements of urban smog.

Heatwaves can increase ozone levels at the earth’s surface, as the gas is formed through an interaction between sunlight, organic compounds and nitrogen oxides emitted by fossil fuels.

Heatwaves are becoming more frequent and more intense across Europe due to planet-heating greenhouse gas emissions, according to scientists.

Mark Parrington, a senior scientist at the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service, said very high ozone pollution can cause people to suffer from sore throats, coughing, headaches and can increase the risk of asthma attacks.

“The Clean Air Alliance estimates that ozone pollution causes approximately one million additional deaths per year,” he said.

The warning comes as the UK recorded its hottest temperature ever on Tuesday. A temperature of 39.1C was recorded in Charlwood Surrey, and broken again later with 40.2C measured at London Heathrow. Those surpassed the previous record of 38.7C in Cambridge in 2019.

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