Thursday, July 8, 2010

Heat, smog a double whammy

Thursday, July 8, 2010
By Anthony Fenech, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Dr. Alan Ducatman once heard an interesting solution to air pollution: Put a huge fan above the famously polluted Mexico City and blow the dirt into the stratosphere.

"It was an amusing study," said Dr. Ducatman, chair of the Department of Community Medicine at West Virginia University.

Amusing, because of the difficulty and uncertainty of the radical operation.

Not so amusing, because today, on yet another 90-degree-plus day, many Pittsburghers would love a steady breeze from above.

That intense heat, combined with the region's 13th Air Quality Action Day of the season, issued today, can cause breathing problems for particular groups, including children, the elderly and people with heart or respiratory diseases.

Air Quality Action Days are designated when ground-level ozone and fine particles are expected to exceed national health-based standards.

But the heat, said Dr. Ducatman, creates more air pollution because energy systems are most stressed on very hot days.

Those days also tend to be void of wind, and the sunlight's rays feed off the pollutants, with its temperature ideal for creating ozone.

"The independent stress of diseases associated with air pollution gets worse on those days," he said. "It does make it more dangerous."

The Allegheny County Health Department is cautioning the public to watch out and "be aware during these hot days," department spokesman Dave Zazac said. "The two ingredients of heat and pollution can really affect the at-risk groups."

The health department is encouraging people to reduce pollution a number of ways, such as walking, biking or using public transit versus driving, and fueling up or mowing the lawn after 7 p.m.

"Basically what we're telling people is to stay cool and save as much energy as you can," Mr. Zazac said. "It does have an impact and really helps things out."

The past four Air Quality Action Days have been what Mr. Zazac referred to as "double whammies," indicating that both ozone and fine particle advisories were in effect.

As of late, Dr. Ducatman has seen an improvement in air quality nationwide. He even said Pittsburgh's air is "remarkably better than, well, pick a date. And it's just getting better."

But he offered caution to residents.

"Even at improved levels of air quality," he said, "the risks aren't gone."

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