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Smog alert safety tips for Georgia runners

September 28, 2010

Below is a guest post by Rebecca Watts Hull, Director of Mothers & Others for Clean Air here in Atlanta and a proud mother of a Girls on the Run Atlanta athlete.

Atlanta smogAugust and September is back-to-school time, and with it the opportunity to enjoy fall sports including football, soccer and cross-country. Here in Georgia, summer heat continues well into September and with it, summer smog.  All athletes can benefit when coaches take simple steps to reduce the amount of air pollution they breathe in.  For athletes with asthma, these simple precautions can be life saving.

While regular exercise is vital to a healthy lifestyle, rigorous activity outdoors at times when the air is polluted can harm the heart and lungs, which may lead to other serious health effects, as well as reduced lung capacity resulting in poorer athletic performance.  Ground-level ozone and fine particle pollution are regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) because they are known to cause and worsen serious heart and lung conditions, including asthma.  The entire greater metro Atlanta area fails the federal standards for both of these pollutants.

Student athletes are at greater risk of damage from air pollution because they have narrower airways, breathe more air per unit of body weight and breathe at higher rates as compared to adults.  Young people with asthma, chronic bronchitis, emphysema, diabetes, or other heart or lung diseases are especially susceptible to the health effects of air pollution.

What are smog alerts?

A measure called the Air Quality Index (AQI) rates air pollution levels on a scale from 0 (the cleanest) to 500 (the most polluted). The AQI level of 100 is set at the national standard, or maximum concentration allowed, for each pollutant, which is determined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) issues smog alerts whenever the AQI is predicted to exceed 100. With an orange smog alert, the air is considered to be unhealthy to breathe for sensitive populations, which includes all children (birth to age 18). A red smog alert means that the air is unhealthy for everyone.

How can I receive smog alerts?

To sign up for email smog alerts for metro Atlanta, go to the Clean Air Campaign webisite. .  An alternative to email alerts is Georgia EPD’s Air Quality Hotline at 404-362-4909.  The smog alert service forecasts which pollutants are likely to be high the following day.  You may also view the prediction for the following day at GeorgiaAir.org’s smog forecast.

How Should I Respond?

Coaches and parents can significantly reduce the risk of a severe asthma attack triggered by air pollution and also protect the heart and lung health of every athlete in their care by taking the following steps:

1. Reduce exposure.  On a bad ozone day, concentrations are highest from 2-7 p.m., so schedule rigorous outdoor practices in the morning if possible.  Particle pollution is different– the peaks occur right around morning and evening rush hour, and the pollution often stays high all day. These are good days to opt for indoor weight training and conditioning. 

If coaches cannot arrange a back-up, indoor space for practice, the intensity and length of the workout should be reduced when air pollution concentrations are high.  The harder kids are breathing, the more pollution they take in.

2. Carefully monitor athletes with asthma, and allow them to take it easy or move indoors if needed.  Make sure they always have ready access to medication and that you have a clear plan in place in the event of an asthma attack.

By paying attention to air quality and the kind of pollutant that is high and by adjusting practices accordingly, coaches can accomplish what they need to and also reduce their athletes’ exposure to harmful, and potentially deadly, air pollution.  You may also see benefits on the playing field, as the athletes’ lung function will benefit from these simple measures to reduce exposure to pollution.  And, student athletes with asthma may be spared a dangerous, and potentially deadly, attack.

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