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Experts explain seasonal air-quality alerts so residents can breathe easier

Now that summer is in full, steamy swing, many around southeast Michigan are heading outside to enjoy some fun in the sun. But that seasonal heat so many of us enjoy could also pose a threat to people at risk of breathing difficulties.

According to Dr. Marc Rosenthal, an emergency room physician with Detroit Medical Center’s Sinai Grace Hospital, summer always brings with it increased complications for those with chronic bronchitis, asthma and emphysema, among other conditions.

“The high temperatures and high humidity can cause more difficulty in breathing. For most people, they’re fine. But if they run to the corner with the kids, they might find they’re a little bit short of breath,” said Rosenthal. “People with mild (respiratory) disease probably won’t see much difference. But people with more severe disease might have symptoms.”

Lynn Fielder is the assistant division chief of the Air Quality Division of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. She explained that there are a number of factors taken into consideration when determining the quality of the air in a community, from pollutants and allergens in the air, to the level of ozone, which can fluctuate based on a number of factors, including heat and humidity.

Fielder noted that over the past several years, southeast Michigan has seen a “significant reduction in air emissions and resulting impacts,” with the exception of 2012, when we saw an especially hot summer, and in turn, a slight uptick in ozone levels. On summer days when the mercury is high and pollutants are out in abundance, the public is alerted with Ozone Action Days, when residents are advised to keep outdoor activity restricted to early morning and late evening hours, as well as refrain from filling up the gas tank or using machinery that emits exhaust, to keep pollutants at a minimum.

“The Ozone Action Days are an alert for people with compromised respiratory systems,” said Fielder. “You need to pay a lot of attention on those days.”

She added that when in doubt, Michiganders can check up-to-date air-quality ratings and find out about Ozone Action Days by visiting www.deqmiair.org. On days when the ozone and pollutants are measured higher than normal, Rosenthal said, precautions should be taken for “at-risk” groups, such as young children, the elderly and people with chronic respiratory conditions.

It can seem a bit contradictory that being outside in the fresh air during the summer can lead to breathing problems. But it’s not the air so much as what’s floating around in it that could make us sick, according to Wibke Heymach, of Moms Clean Air Force.

“The air quality in Michigan has been improving; that’s the good news. The bad news is we’re still looking at some very bad grades in some key counties,” said Heymach. “Last year, Ozone Action Days in Michigan were at a high.”

Moms Clean Air Force has more than 130,000 members nationally, with about 5,600 right here in Michigan fighting to bring awareness to the effects of air quality on children and other groups. Heymach is the field organizer for Michigan’s volunteers, and she said the cause is an important one because it’s not often at the forefront of people’s minds.

“With more data coming out, we find out a lot more about which particles are most harmful, how they’re generated, where they’re coming from. Unless air is really toxic, we don’t see what’s going on and it’s a lot harder to draw attention to those issues because it’s not something you can immediately see,” she said.

Despite the fact that air quality is a health threat often invisible to the naked eye, there are precautions families can take to breathe easier.

“We’re not trying to keep our children from going outside to play. That’s the last thing we want to do. But, overall, keep your kid hydrated as much as possible. On our website, momscleanairforce.org, we have information on things to help, from cleaning products we use, to what we can do in our schools, like cleaning air vents,” she said.

Most importantly, she said, the best thing parents can do for children with respiratory problems is to check air-quality levels and monitor outdoor play closely when levels are rated high. Members of Moms Clean Air Force use the American Lung Association’s air monitoring site, www.stateoftheair.org.

Rosenthal agreed, and said a little extra attention to environmental conditions could be the difference between safe summer fun and serious danger.

“Asthma kills. COPD kills. Even in well-controlled patients, people die. It’s not something to be taken lightly,” he said. “People just need to pay attention to their environment, take their medications as directed, and pay attention to their bodies. If you feel you’re developing more symptoms, get into a cooler, dryer place and take more of your medication. If that’s not helping, seek more advanced care at the emergency room.”