Tips for breathing easier when summer heat affects air quality

July 08, 2013

By Greg Peters (home page photo courtesy of the KCATA)

David Burnett, Ph.D.

Ozone alerts and other air-quality warnings often accompany the blast furnace-like air of summer.

We sat down with David Burnett, Ph.D. the director of the Respiratory Care Education program at the University of Kansas Medical Center, to discuss the dangers of ozone and other challenges people face on air-quality or ozone alert days. Burnett is a registered respiratory therapist (RRT) and a certified asthma educator (AE-C). Students in KU's Respiratory Care Education program learn how to evaluate and treat breathing and cardiopulmonary disorders, including asthma and emphysema. KU has 45 students in the program.

The Environmental Protection Agency established the air quality index (AQI) to tell the public how clean the air is and what health concerns might be based on ground-level ozone, particle pollution, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide. In Kansas City, The Mid-America Regional Council uses a four-tier SkyCast index that measures ozone. The EPA's scale ranges from green (good) to maroon (hazardous), while MARC's goes from green (good) to red (unhealthy). Both have orange caution days for at-risk groups and red caution alert days when the conditions are unhealthy for everyone.

Question: What is ozone, and why is it bad for people?

Burnett: Ozone can be an irritant to your lungs and is found at higher levels when temperatures rise.

Question: What is an "orange" alert and how do they determine the levels?
An orange alert is when particles of ozone reach a concentration that may increase the chance for people with respiratory diseases, such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), to have worsening of symptoms.

Question: Are there portions of the population more at risk on air-quality alert days?
Burnett: Yes, those with a history of respiratory disease, and people who engage in regular outdoor recreational and sports activities may increase their risk for adverse respiratory symptoms related to higher ground ozone levels.

Question: Say I'm a health 20-something, why shouldn't I go for my daily run on an orange alert day? Is it OK to workout indoors on an alert day?
Burnett: Yes, it's Ok to work out on orange alert days. However, and especially if you have a history of respiratory disease like asthma, pay close attention to your symptoms, monitor your lung function, and make sure you take your preventative medications.

Question: What are the warning signs if someone is having problems on an air quality alert day?
Burnett: Typically respiratory symptoms include increasing and unusual shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing, tightness in the chest, increased fatigue and decreased lung function.

Question: What are your suggestions for staying safe on ozone alert days?
Burnett: Pay attention to your body by monitoring your symptoms. If you have a peak flow meter for monitoring your lung function, then follow your trends in peak expiratory flow. If your symptoms and lung function are worsening, follow your medical advice for treating your respiratory disease.

Question: Can exposure to ozone lead to death?
Anything that can trigger an acute and severe change in airway inflammation has the potential to lead to mortality.

Question: What are your closing thoughts about ozone and air quality?
Burnett: Be aware of high ozone in your area, make sure you take your routinely prescribed medications, and pay attention to your symptoms and lung function. For people with asthma, have an Asthma Action Plan in place and know what steps to take if your symptoms and lung function change. If you're unaware of how to manage your symptoms and monitor your lung function, contact your physician. 

Last modified: Jul 12, 2013