Having lived in upstate New York, then Minnesota, Jon Storm knew only clean air before moving here. But after he moved to the East Valley in 2001, he began suffering from watery eyes and weekly sinus infections.
"I felt like my head was blowing up," Storm says.
Now, with three small children and a wife who lost a lung to cancer, Storm is packing up and moving to Fredonia, N.Y. Air quality was a major factor in his decision to leave.
"I like fresh air," he says.
BREATH OF LIFE
We all need air — to the tune of 3,400 gallons per person a day. But what’s the effect on the body when it lives and breathes in an area plagued by high particulate counts and ozone alerts?
"Different people react differently to air pollution," says Dr. Andrew Carroll of Renaissance Family Medical Care in Chandler. The very young, the elderly and those with respiratory problems tend to be affected most because their lungs are not fully developed or already compromised, but "in some way, shape or form everyone is affected by air pollution," Carroll says.
"I’ve had patients who have moved here from California that have never had problems with asthma and bronchitis before. It is kind of ironic, really, because people used to move here because of those respiratory problems," he says. Now people leave because of them.
Staying indoors during times of high pollution helps to some degree, Carroll says, but there is evidence that the most dangerous of the air pollutants, ground-level ozone, is not diminished by the climate-controlled environments.
Pulmonologist David Baratz of Pulmonary Associates says the long-term effects of air pollution aren’t known — studies done in the 1970s and ’80s were inconclusive — but air irritants can cause temporary narrowing of the airways and, consequently, the feeling of not being able to breathe. Wheezing is the usual result.
During high pollution advisories, active adults, children and those with respiratory problems should limit prolonged outdoor exposure — which is exactly what happens at Citadel Care Center in Mesa. Air quality is a big issue for the elderly, whose health may already be compromised.
"Of all the things that can go wrong with the elderly, the feeling that you can’t breathe is incredibly frightening," says Kim LeFleur, assistant director of nursing. Many of the center’s residents, average age 85, have respiratory problems as either a primary or secondary diagnosis, LeFleur says, so when a pollution advisory is issued they stay inside, where the air unit filters and recirculates air.
"Everyone should be careful" when a health watch has been posted, says Steven Owens, director of the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality. With a high pollution advisory, strenuous outdoor afternoon exercise should be curtailed.
Summertime — especially July and August — can be particularly bad for ground-level ozone because of vehicle emissions, hot weather, lots of sunlight and stagnant air. And it tends to accumulate more in the East Valley because of prevailing afternoon summer winds. Because ground-level ozone diminishes with temperature and sunlight, the worst time of day is afternoons until sundown.
Owens points out that the Valley typically doesn’t have problems on weekends because commuter traffic is lighter. And Baratz notes there are medicines and therapies available to minimize the effects of air pollution on the lungs.
In the meantime, Owens says, Valley residents need to continue to do what they have been doing to make a difference: Telecommuting, carpooling, refueling cars on off hours and limiting use of power lawn equipment all affect air quality.
Types of pollutants
An odorless, colorless gas formed when carbon in fuel is not burned completely. Vehicle exhaust contributes up to 95 percent of carbon monoxide emissions in cities. Affected: People with cardiovascular disease and respiratory problems, young infants and fetuses. Health effects: Diminished mental alertness and vision.
Emitted by cars, industrial boilers, refineries, chemical plants and other sources that react chemically in sunlight. Affected: People of all ages who are active outdoors, particularly people with asthma. Health effects: Inflammation and damage to the lining of the lungs; repeated exposure can result in permanent scarring and loss of lung function.
A gas produced by combustion engines and a precursor to ground-level ozone. Affected: Everyone, especially young children. Health effects: Eye, nose and throat irritation.
Also known as "particulate matter," particle pollution is a mixture of solids and liquid droplets. Solids are emitted from power plants, fireplaces, forest fires, and crushing or grinding operations. Affected: People with heart or lung disease, the elderly and children. Health effects: Cardiac arrhythmia, heart attack and an inability to breath deeply.
A colorless, reactive gas produced by power plants and industrial boilers. Affected: People with asthma. Health effects: Wheezing, chest tightness and shortness of breath, even in healthy people. People with cardiovascular disease or chronic lung disease may experience diminished capacity of the lungs’ defense mechanisms. Source: Environmental Protection Agency