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Breathe At Your Own Risk

Spring is in the air.

And so, apparently, is a lot of soot.

As was reported yesterday, the D.C./Baltimore/Northern Virginia area again has scored a spot in the American Lung Association's annual list of the top-10 cities with the filthiest air. Here's the full assessment.

On the bright side, the Lung Association notes that things are looking up: The D.C. region's air quality has improved over the past few years.

But we're still heading toward a long summer full of Code Orange and Code Red days when the air's so bad we're not supposed to breathe any more of it than we have to.

So, I was relieved to see that the Lung Association supplies this list of handy hints for reducing our exposure to the foul air around us (and, by extension, lessening our risk of lung disease, asthma, and other ills).

When I actually read the list, though, I was surprised to see that only a few tips are in fact aimed at helping individuals stay healthy: Check the weather report and plan to exercise indoors when pollution's at its worst; keep the kiddies inside when the smog is thick.

(And wait: Turns out the indoor air might be just as bad as the stuff outside, at least for folks with allergies or asthma. So say experts at the University of Missouri, who point out that our homes are filled with bad stuff to breathe, including dust mites, mold, and mildew, and who make these suggestions for cleaning up. For more in indoor air quality, check out the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's indoor-air site.)

The rest of the "Tips to Protect Yourself" are all about keeping your own air-polluting activities to a minimum. That's great; we should all do our part. And in the long run, of course, those actions could help reduce everyone's risk from those grimy little pollutants that lodge in the lungs.

But calling "Combine trips and use buses, subways, light rail systems, commuter trains, or other alternatives to driving" a "tip to protect yourself" is a stretch. I, for one, would welcome something a bit more immediate -- and, yes, a little more self-serving. Should I be wearing a surgical mask on those steamy days when I walk the dog, or what?

For answers, I contacted the Lung Association and asked if they have anything more to offer.

Not much. Norman Edelman, the Lung Association's chief medical officer, says standard surgical masks don't do much to combat air pollution, as they're meant to "keep large droplets out," not the tiny particles of which air pollution is made. People with serious medical conditions (or who work around a lot of dust) can consider getting a special mask called an N95, which Edelman says you can buy at big hardware stores; even these need to be fitted properly to do any good. People who use inhalers, bronchodilators, or inhaled steroids might want to ask their doctors for extra doses to use on bad days, Edelman suggests. Air conditioners might help reduce the amount of ozone in your house, but their filters aren't all that efficient at removing particulate matter, he says; he also notes that if you use a room filter or whole-house filter, be sure it isn't one that actually produces ozone. And if you do choose to exercise, Edelman cautions, do it early in the morning or maybe late in the evening.

And that's about it.

Looks like it's going to be a very long summer.

FYI: With prom and graduation season upon us, I'll be blogging on Monday about the dangers of teen driving. In the meantime, check out ABC's prime-time special on the topic this coming Sunday at 7p.m. Then check in with The Checkup the next day.

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  May 2, 2008; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Environmental Toxins  
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