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Orange smog alert means it's best for some to stay indoors
Cathy Burris, far left, and Vicky Pate, far right, twirl the jump rope Friday for, from left, Reagan Compton, Izzy Pate and Amanda Burris on the sidewalk in Wilshire Trails Park. Outdoor activity — especially for children, the elderly and those with chronic respiratory problems — is discouraged during smog alert days. - photo by Tom Reed

Smog forecast

A shift to strong northwest winds and cooler, drier conditions will drop ozone levels back into the green category for today. The 24-hour average for particulate matter will hold in the yellow category until sometime Sunday morning.

Source: Ambient Monitoring Program

Warm, sunny weather usually beckons people outside, whether it be to the lake, the park or just hanging out in the backyard.

But some days, that may not be such a good idea.

Friday was one of those days. It was the first orange alert for the smog season that started May 1. That means children, the elderly and those with chronic respiratory conditions may need to stay inside.

“Children are affected because they are more active,” said Brian Carr, director of communications at the nonprofit Clean Air Campaign. “Their heart rate is usually up more when they’re out playing. They breathe about 50 percent more per pound of body weight than adults do. Their little hearts are racing a lot faster.”

Carr suggested having children play inside on orange and red alert days, of which there were 33 total in 2008 and 16 in 2009, according to the Ambient Monitoring Program.

For those who are exposed to ground level ozones for long periods of time, Carr said they can get “what’s almost like a sunburn on the inside of your lungs.” The tissue becomes inflamed, making it difficult to breathe. It also can trigger asthma attacks and in some cases lead to increased risk of heart attack. The elderly may encounter problems doing physical activity outside because of increased strain on older organs.

That’s not to say the sensitive groups have to stay inside all day long, though. Carr said smog is most prevalent in late morning and early afternoon and reaches its most potent stage around midafternoon. But around 6 p.m. smog starts to dissipate as the weather cools.

Last year saw fewer smoggy days, due in large part to the weather.

“In 2009, what really happened was that we were breaking free from the drought,” Carr said. “And that was a good thing in that it helped to fill ... Lake Lanier, but at the same time it was very forgiving in terms of cool weather, wetter weather that helped it dissipate some of the ground-level ozone that tends to form in the region.”

This year, though, things are likely to be back to normal, though the number of orange and red alert days per year varies greatly.
“We’re sort of corrected back into the path that we usually see ourselves in,” Carr said.

Weather has a big effect on air quality, he said, but emissions from cars have an equally large effect.

“There’s a really strong link between how much we drive and the quality of the air we breathe,” he said.

With more cars on the road, smog often is worse closer to Atlanta. But Cherrise Boone, public relations and information specialist at the Environmental Protection Division, said air quality is more of a regional problem than a concern by a specific city or county as air movement patterns know no borders.

However, Hall County is not part of the 13-county metro Atlanta nonattainment area, which designates an area where air pollution levels persistently exceed National Ambient Air Quality Standards.

Boone noted that, though Atlanta is still on the top 20 list of most polluted cities put out by the American Lung Association, it has moved slightly down the list.

“We’re still on the list for bad air quality, but we are slightly improving,” she said.

Boone and Carr both advised staying indoors when smog is bad, they also mentioned something else people could do: bike, carpool, use mass transit, anything to reduce emissions.

“There are things that we can do to protect the air and our health,” Boone said. “And we just encourage people to do those things”