Heat Waves Are Bad For (Even The Healthiest) Lungs

Haze over New York City in the summer of 2005 i i

Heat can create haze over big cities like New York City. When ozone is exposed to heat and sunlight, bad chemicals are released that can irritate people's lungs. Mario Tama/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Mario Tama/Getty Images
Haze over New York City in the summer of 2005

Heat can create haze over big cities like New York City. When ozone is exposed to heat and sunlight, bad chemicals are released that can irritate people's lungs.

Mario Tama/Getty Images

It's been the hottest summer on record in many cities on the East Coast. And with that blistering weather has come a lot of days of unhealthy air.

On Wednesday, at least 75 areas from San Francisco to Portland, Maine, are warning their residents about high air pollution.

In the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, local officials sent out more air pollution warnings this year than they had since 2002 — three Code Red, 26 Code Orange and more predicted on the way.

Children Are Vulnerable

All those bad air days mean that at day care centers, like Little Flower Montessori School in Washington, D.C., children are spending a lot of time cooped up inside.

Eliana Noguchi says the children normally would go to the playground several times a day for 40 minutes each time. But with Code Red air quality, they get one short recess — 15 minutes in a sprinkler.

"Ready, go! Who is going to be the brave one?" she squeals, urging the children into the spray of water.

As tiny feet slap the pavement in a happy sprinkler dance, Noguchi says some toddlers are missing. They have asthma and their parents picked them up early to avoid even this brief time outside.

The American Lung Association's chief medical officer, Dr. Norman Edelman, says children are especially vulnerable to bad air days, particularly if they have asthma.

"Kids are always running around so they breathe a lot more for their size than adults do. So they take in a lot more of this bad stuff," he says.

Chemical Reactions

Ozone and fine particles are the two types of pollution that trigger Code Red and Orange days. Both are formed out of exhaust from power plants, cars and a lot of other things.

With ozone "the two bad chemical actors are oxides of nitrogen and hydrocarbons," Edelman says. "When they're exposed to heat and sunlight, a chemical reaction takes place which releases ozone."

And when people breathe it in, it irritates their lungs, which are as fragile as the inside of eyelids.

"So if you look down the airways of somebody exposed to excessive ozone, it would look like a bad sunburn of the airways," he says.

That can cause inflammation, and since children's airways are a lot smaller than adults, it doesn't take much swelling to cause an asthma attack or worse.

High levels of fine particles also trigger bad air days in summertime, especially in the East. Coal-fired power plants are the main culprit, and on the hottest days, they're working at full tilt to keep air conditioners running.

The elderly and people with lung and heart problems are at high risk. Studies show that air pollution kills tens of thousands of them every year.

Even The Healthy Should Be Careful

But Edelman says even if you're healthy, you shouldn't ignore bad air days. It's probably best to do outdoor exercise in the morning before the sun and exhaust have turned the air into an unhealthy soup.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers short stop Matt Unger i i

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers shortstop Matt Unger says players on his softball team served in Iraq and Afghanistan — and are up to the challenge of playing in a hot, bad air day. Elizabeth Shogren/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Elizabeth Shogren/NPR
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers short stop Matt Unger

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers shortstop Matt Unger says players on his softball team served in Iraq and Afghanistan — and are up to the challenge of playing in a hot, bad air day.

Elizabeth Shogren/NPR

Clearly a lot of people ignore this advice, like two teams of federal workers who were slugging it out on a softball field on the National Mall on a steamy Code Red day.

"It's not that bad out here," says Army Corps of Engineers shortstop Matt Unger.

He says other games were canceled, but his players are used to the heat after serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Turns out their opponents — self-described bureaucrats from the Government Accountability Office — are pretty tough too.

Still panting from her run around the bases, Kim Gianopoulos says she doesn't pay attention to air pollution alerts.

"You don't get too much opportunity these days to get out and have fun with your co-workers and do this kind of thing, so you've got to take advantage of it," Gianopoulos says.

Edelman says if you do exert yourself on a bad air day, don't ignore symptoms like burning lungs or irritated eyes.

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