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High Temperatures Hurt Air Quality
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High Temperatures Hurt Air Quality

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High Temperatures Hurt Air Quality
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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

And I'm Andrea Seabrook.

It's hot and the air is thick. Record and near-record temperatures this week have brought code red and code orange warnings to many parts of the country. That means high levels of ozone or smog can make it dangerous to spend time outside, especially for some people with health problems.

Now, new regulations proposed by the EPA say there ought to be a lot more of those code red and code orange days in a lot more communities, and that's something that people with health problems have suspected for a long time.

NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN: It's still dark at 5:30, and Brooke McPherson(ph) is waiting for me outside her house at a Maryland suburb of Washington, D.C.

Ms. BROOKE MCPHERSON: The air is tight as early in the morning is this. So now you see why I cannot really go.

(Soundbite of car engine revving)

SHOGREN: She's ready for the five-minute drive to the track for her daily exercise.

McPherson has a lung illness called sarcoidosis. She walks early in the morning because it's the coolest time of day, and the air quality is best.

SHOGREN: At 51, McPherson is slender and fit. But as she sets off around the track, her pace is slow. Her goal is eight times around the track - two miles.

(Soundbite of coughing)

SHOGREN: But already, on the first lap, she's struggling.

Do you cough a lot in the morning?

Ms. MCPHERSON: Yes, I do. Can we slow down just a little bit?

SHOGREN: Yeah. Whatever you want.

Ms. MCPHERSON: Yeah.

SHOGREN: Just - you set the pace.

She takes frequent sips from a bottle of water. The temperature is already in the 70s and the day is shaping up to be a scorcher.

What would happen if you tried to do this walking in the middle of the day today?

Ms. MCPHERSON: I wouldn't be able to do it. I wouldn't be able to breathe.

SHOGREN: And it's not just the code orange days.

Ms. MCPHERSON: There are some other days that doesn't reach the code orange day. It's also kind of complicated, but I still stay in.

SHOGREN: In fact, what McPherson senses, the Environmental Protection Agency has measured. Earlier this summer, it proposed tightening the ozone standard from 84 parts per billion to 75 or 70 parts per billion. That could mean there would be code orange or code red days in five times more counties than experienced than now. Even at the less stringent level, the Washington, D.C. area would have had 30 unhealthy air days so far this summer instead of 12. But many lung experts and environmental activists say the standard should be even tighter, and they worry that pressure from the White House will prevent the EPA for making the standards strict enough.

Ms. VICKI PATTON (Senior Attorney, Environmental Defense Center): In, really, the last moments of decision-making, political forces at the White House intervened…

SHOGREN: Vicki Patton is a lawyer for Environmental Defense.

Ms. PATTON: …they altered the presentation of the science. They changed the complexion of this rule.

SHOGREN: In e-mails and faxes, White House officials suggest new language for the proposal and press the EPA to include it. But Robert Meyers, who heads the EPA's air office, says the White House involvement was routine.

Mr. ROBERT MEYERS (Head of Office of Air and Radiation, Environmental Protection Agency): This is a matter of normal practice in any administration.

SHOGREN: Besides, he says, the EPA administrator has proposed tightening the standard. And by law, his final decision must protect public health. It's due early next year.

(Soundbite of coughing)

SHOGREN: At the track, where McPherson is finishing up her workout, the sun is just coming up over the horizon. It's a huge red ball.

Ms. MCPHERSON: Oh, my goodness. That's when you know it's going to be a steamer, when it's that red. Good Lord.

SHOGREN: That's pretty much the last McPherson will see of the sun today. As soon as she gets home, she turns on the television.

(Soundbite of television news)

Unidentified Reporter: Code orange, in effect, for today for unhealthy air quality.

Ms. MCPHERSON: The most that I'll be outside at this point is from my house to my car, and then from my car into my place of business.

SHOGREN: She says it's hard not to be able to go out to lunch with coworkers. One time she tried, and as soon she opened the door, she realized it was a mistake. She turned right around and went back inside.

Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News.

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