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Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Understand the health risks of air pollution


Dr. Tze-Ming (Benson) Chen, February 4, 2014

 Dr. Tze-Ming (Benson) Chen Photo: Courtesy Of CPMC
 A sign over Interstate 580 in Livermore warns motorists that a Spare the Air alert is in effect.

As part of my New Year's resolutions for 2014, I vowed to hike more. So bright and early one recent morning, I dragged my family out of bed and headed to our neighboring Rancho San Antonio Park in Santa Clara County. Despite the moaning and groaning of my 5- and 7-year-old children, I was able to persuade them to climb the steep PG&E Trail.

After an hour of hiking, we stopped at a clearing in the trees to take in what we expected to be a spectacular view. My daughter's only comment was, "Daddy, why is everything so foggy in the valley below?"

What we were seeing covering Santa Clara County was the air pollution that had prompted the winter season's 24th Spare the Air day. (We have had several more Spare the Air days since.)

Air pollution is a significant public health hazard and poses acute risks to people with underlying lung disease such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Those risks can range from difficulty breathing to even death among the most vulnerable.

However, physicians have not been very effective in counseling their patients about the negative effects of air pollution on their health and how to cope with this problem.

If you want to deal effectively with the effects of air pollution on your health, there are three steps. The first is to be aware of air quality. Thankfully, this information is easy to find on the Internet and in the weather section of local newspapers, under the Air Quality (AQ) Index heading.

The AQ Index has six risk levels, ranging from "good" to "hazardous," and evaluates ground-level ozone, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and particle pollution. The essentials can be found in the chart that accompanies this column.

The second step is to incorporate the information provided by the AQ Index into how you plan your activities. If you have heart and/or lung disease and the AQ Index is not "good," you may notice shortness of breath, chest pain, wheezing or worse if you are outdoors for prolonged periods of time.
Consequently, adjust your plans for the day so that you avoid strenuous exercise outside and spend most of your time indoors. If going outdoors is necessary, bring an inhaler and try to restrict your activities to the morning.

Finally, if you do develop respiratory symptoms despite your efforts to minimize exposure to air pollution, contact your health care provider for assistance. Treatment may be as simple as an inhaler medication or, in more challenging situations, a course of steroids may be required. In more severe instances, treatment in a hospital setting may be necessary.

With air pollution becoming a more significant problem in urban centers around the world, being aware of your medical problems and how your body responds to air pollution will help you better manage your health.

Just remember the three steps above and have a plan in place when air quality deteriorates. If all else fails, don't forget to contact your health care provider for assistance.


 Dr. Tze-Ming (Benson) Chen is the director of Intensive Care Unit Services at California Pacific Medical Center, San Francisco, and CPMC director of Bronchoscopy Services.