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Ozone (O3) is a triatomic molecule, consisting of three oxygen atoms. It is an allotrope of oxygen that is much less stable than the diatomic O2. Ground-level ozone is an air pollutant with harmful effects on the respiratory systems of animals. Ozone in the upper atmosphere filters potentially damaging ultraviolet light from reaching the Earth's surface. It is present in low concentrations throughout the Earth's atmosphere. It has many industrial and consumer applications. Ozone therapy is a controversial alternative medicine practice; mainstream scientific medicine has found ozone to be harmful to humans, and equipment intended to be used for ozone therapy is banned in the United States.
Ozone, the first allotrope of a chemical element to be described by science, was discovered by Christian Friedrich Schönbein in 1840, who named it after the Greek word for smell (ozein), from the peculiar odor in lightning storms. The odor from a lightning strike is from ions produced during the rapid chemical changes, not from the ozone itself.
The highest levels of ozone in the atmosphere are in the stratosphere, in a region also known as the ozone layer between about 10 km and 50 km above the surface (or between 6.21 and 31.1 miles). Here it filters out the shorter wavelengths (less than 320 nm) of ultraviolet light, also called UV rays, (270 to 400 nm) from the Sun that would be harmful to most forms of life in large doses. These same wavelengths are also among those responsible for the production of vitamin D, which is essential for human health. Ozone in the stratosphere is mostly produced from ultraviolet rays reacting with oxygen:
O2 + (radiation < 240 nm) → 2 O
O + O2 → O3
It is destroyed by the reaction with atomic oxygen:
O3 + O → 2 O2
(See Ozone-oxygen cycle for more detail.)
The latter reaction is catalysed by the presence of certain free radicals, of which the most important are hydroxyl (OH), nitric oxide (NO) and atomic chlorine (Cl) and bromine (Br). In recent decades the amount of ozone in the stratosphere has been declining mostly due to emissions of CFCs and similar chlorinated and brominated organic molecules, which have increased the concentration of ozone-depleting catalysts above the natural background. Ozone only makes up 0.00006% of the atmosphere. See ozone depletion for more information.