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Heat, air quality bring danger

Best advice: Stay inside to avoid ozone

Wednesday, July 18, 2012
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Evyn Schaeffer, 4, of Scotia, cools off in a sprinkler at the Tri City BMX Track in Rotterdam on Tuesday.
Evyn Schaeffer, 4, of Scotia, cools off in a sprinkler at the Tri City BMX Track in Rotterdam on Tuesday.

— The Capital Region’s hottest day of the year fell one degree short of a record high reached more than 100 years ago.

Thermometers climbed to 98 degrees just before 4 p.m. Tuesday, coming up short of the 99 degrees the region experienced on June 17, 1900, according to National Weather Service meteorologist Ray O’Keefe.

Those looking for respite from the heat and humidity will have to wait another day or so, as temperatures today are expected to again broach the 90s before dropping off to the low 80s Thursday and the mid-70s Friday.

Tuesday’s near-record temperature — recorded at Albany International Airport — prompted the state departments of Environmental Conservation and Health to warn swaths of New York state about high ozone levels, an environmental concern sometimes forgotten amidst concerns with heat illnesses such as cramps, exhaustion or heat stroke.

“You might feel unable to take a deep breath or feel slightly decreased exercise tolerance,” said Dr. David Liebers, vice president for quality services and medical affairs at Ellis Medicine.

Symptoms sound like those of a heat illness but actually present when ozone or fine particulate matter raise the Air Quality Index. Capital Region air was deemed unhealthy for sensitive population groups Tuesday when the index reached 105. Environmental experts consider an index of 100 to be moderately healthy and is the national standard set to protect public health.

Air quality exceeded this standard across New York state, including the upper and lower Hudson valleys, Central New York, Long Island and the New York City metro area, which had the highest statewide level of ozone.

Summer heat can sometimes cause ground-level ozone to form. Ozone is helpful in the upper parts of the atmosphere but dangerous at ground level and the most serious air pollution problem in the Northeast.

Created by chemical reactions between nitrogen oxide and volatile organic compounds, ozone can reach unhealthy levels on hot sunny days in urban environments, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Particularly sensitive to high ozone levels are children, the elderly, those who work and play outdoors, and people with respiratory issues or underlying lung disease.

“A lot of times when a certain level is reached and there are enough chemical reactions between the ozone and particulates, people with underlying conditions like asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease will feel their symptoms exacerbate,” said Dr. Kemp Bundy, a specialist with CapitalCare Medical Group.

It’s usually around this time of the year when Bundy gets a flurry of phone calls. It’s even worse with back-to-back days of poor air quality and little wind. His patients might report increased cough, wheezing, chest tightness or shortness of breath.

“When ozone levels go up, there’s a very close correlation between asthma symptoms, rescue inhaler use, [emergency room] visits and even hospitalizations for asthma,” said Bundy. “It’s a non-specific irritant to the lungs. Basically it sets off a cascade immune system response where there’s an increased number of chemicals in the lungs, making mild symptoms worse.”

The emergency departments at Albany Medical Center and Ellis Hospital in Schenectady reported no visits for heat-related illness as of Tuesday evening.

“We’re not terribly urbanized, though,” said Liebers.

Big contributors to dangerous ozone levels are automobile exhaust, gasoline vapors and industrial emissions.

When exposed, the most common symptom is irritation of the eyes, nose and throat. Some people experience heart symptoms such as chest pain. Even a simple feeling of lethargy could be a sign of ozone exposure, which can change lung function for several days before returning to normal, according to the state Department of Health.

Although permanent health effects from long-term exposure to elevated ozone levels are inconclusive, some studies have reported permanently reduced lung function, including an increased risk of developing asthma.

“The best thing to do is just get out of that atmosphere,” said Liebers. “These are the days you want to stay indoors and keep the [air conditioning] on and not expose yourself to that environment if you can.”

The American Lung Association launched a new tool last month for smartphone users to stay up to date on their regional air quality. The State of the Air app allows someone to punch in their ZIP code and get the day’s air quality conditions, including levels of ozone and particle pollution.

The app also provides health recommendations based on that day’s pollution levels, like whether outdoor activities should be rescheduled or someone should avoid heavy outdoor exertion.

“With these increased summer temperatures comes the increased threat of hazardous levels of ozone pollution,” said Jeff Seyler, president and CEO of the American Lung Association of the Northeast. “We are excited to be able to provide this innovative tool so those with lung disease, and without, can effectively monitor their local air quality and limit their exposure to dangerous levels of pollution.”

 
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