Air Quality & Your Health: What You Need to Know this Summer

By: Cristina Mestre

By now we’re probably all used to hearing about “code orange” days on the morning news, and how the air quality is “unhealthy for sensitive groups.”  But what exactly does that mean, and should we be concerned about the effects of air quality on our health?
Here, Judith Focareta, R.N., M.Ed., coordinator of environmental health initiatives at Magee-Womens Hospital of UPMC, answers our questions on air pollution and health.
Q: What kinds of pollutants are in the air here in Pittsburgh, and why are they worse in the summertime?
A: Although Pittsburgh has come a long way in improving our region’s air quality, we’re still ranked eighth worst in the nation when it comes to year-round particle pollution (particle pollution is made up of metals, soil, dust particles, acids, and organic chemicals). Part of this is our location – we’re downwind from many coal-fired power plants in the Midwest, but heavy traffic here also contributes to high pollution levels. When breathed, particle pollution can get deep into the lungs and exacerbate heart and lung disease, causing many premature deaths.
Pittsburgh also struggles with high levels of ozone, a principal component of smog.  Breathing in ground level ozone can also cause lung and respiratory problems such as coughing, airway inflammation and shortness of breath. The chemical reactions that form ozone happen more rapidly at higher temperatures, so we see higher ozone levels in the summer months and especially during the day. 
Q: When you read about a “code orange” day in the news, what does that mean?
A:  “Code orange” or “code red” days mean that either fine particles (particle pollution) or ozone is predicted to reach unhealthy levels for sensitive groups.  Sensitive groups include those with asthma, children and the elderly, pregnant women and people with lung or heart disease. Those in a sensitive group should limit or avoid prolonged outdoor exertion on these days. To limit your exposure, plan your outdoor activities when pollution levels are lower, and choose less strenuous activities such as walking instead of jogging. 
Q: What about pregnant women? Should they avoid exercising on code orange/red days?
A:  We recommend that pregnant women follow the guidelines for the “sensitive groups” since they are listed within as members of that grouping. The EPA guidelines for pregnant woman for reducing exposure to particle pollution and ozone are as follows:
  • When air quality forecasts indicate poor air quality, reduce activity time or substitute another activity that requires less energy. For example, walk rather than jog.
  • Don’t exercise near high-traffic roads, where particle levels are generally higher.
Q: What can you tell us about the connection between pollution and autism?
A: Although the cause of autism is still unknown, some recent studies have shown that pregnant women exposed to high levels of air pollution were twice as likely to have a child with autism. Here in Pittsburgh, the Pitt Graduate School of Public Health is conducting a study on the connection between autism and environmental risk factors.
Q: What kinds of environmental initiatives are happening at Magee to address pollution problems? 
A: At Magee, we’re focused on educating new and expectant parents not only on the problems associated with air pollution but also on the health impacts of exposure to cigarette smoke, lead,  mercury, pesticides and other chemicals of concern. We have educational resources such as a video on “Baby Steps to Green Parenting,” which addresses environmental health concerns for new parents. Plus, all of the nurses on the postpartum unit are trained in environmental health principles so they can counsel new moms and families, and answer questions.  In fact, we were recently recognized by Practice Greenhealth as an environmental leader – only 29 hospitals in the U.S. received this award.