Lung association gives parish failing grade

Report says air dangerous for those battling lung disorders, children and teens

Heather R. Breaux
May 27, 2009 at 8:51 am  | Mobile Reader | Pring this storyPrint 

Breathing the air around St. Charles Parish could be hazardous to your health, especially if you are battling existing lung disorders such as asthma or pulmonary disease.

According to air-quality tests conducted by the American Lung Association, St. Charles Parish failed and was given an “F” along with several neighboring parishes - Lafourche, St. James and St. John. The tests revealed that last year alone, the River Parish area was under 15 high-ozone day warnings.

“Lung disease can be caused or aggravated by air pollution, both indoors and out,” said Tommy Lotz, CEO of the Metairie chapter of the ALA. “So, that’s why our organization has decided to publish these special reports to help create awareness about environmental health.”

The ALA’s report on St. Charles Parish indicated that the area has experienced  high ozone levels off and on for the last three years.

“Ozone is an extremely reactive gas molecule composed of three oxygen atoms. It is the primary ingredient of smog air pollution and is very harmful to breathe,” Lotz said. “Ozone attacks lung tissue by reacting chemically with it.”

News about ozone can be confusing. Some days it’s said that ozone levels are too high and other days that residents need to prevent ozone depletion. Lotz helps clarify the confusion surrounding this harmful pollutant.

“Basically, the ozone layer found high in the upper atmosphere, the stratosphere, is beneficial because it shields us from much of the sun’s ultraviolet radiation,” he said. “However, ozone air pollution at ground level where we can breathe it - in the troposphere - is harmful. It causes serious health problems.”

So where does it come from? What comes out of an air tailpipe on a car isn’t  ozone, but the raw ingredients for making ozone.

“Ozone is formed by chemical reactions in the atmosphere from two raw gases  - nitrogen oxide and hydrocarbons - that do come out of tailpipes, smokestacks and other sources,” Lotz said. “When these ingredients come in contact with both heat and sunlight, they combine to make ozone.”

Lotz also points out that area refineries and chemical plants do play a role in the ozone that is created.

“Hydrocarbons  are primarily produced when fossil fuels like gasoline, oil or coal are burned or when some chemicals evaporate. And they’re mainly emitted from motor vehicles, chemical plants, refineries, factories, gas stations, paint and other sources.”

But several refineries and chemical plants, such as Valero, have already changed the way they do business to reduce emissions.

“Since Valero acquired the St. Charles refinery, we have reduced emissions by improving our equipment,” Taryn Miller, community relations analyst for Valero, said. “We’re continuing to look for ways to reduce emissions. In fact, we are members of the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality’s Environmental Leadership Program (ELP), which recognizes outstanding environmental achievements in pollution prevention, community environmental outreach and other environmental accomplishments of businesses, municipalities, and non-governmental organizations across the state of Louisiana.” 

Medical research initiated by the ALA has revealed that there are five main groups of  people who are vulnerable to the effects of breathing ozone.

They are children, teens, anyone 65 and older, people who work or exercise outdoors, and people with existing lung diseases such as asthma, emphysema and chronic bronchitis.

“The impact on your health can depend on a variety of factors, however, not just whether you are part of one of these groups,” Lotz said. “For example, the risks would be greater if ozone levels are higher, if you are breathing faster because you are working outdoors or if you spend more time outdoors.”

Residents may have wondered why “ozone action day” warnings are sometimes followed by recommendations to avoid such activities as mowing lawns or refilling gas tanks during daylight hours.

According to published EPA reports, lawn mower exhaust and gasoline vapors are hydrocarbons that can turn into ozone in the heat and the sun.

“Take away the sunlight and ozone doesn’t form, so refilling your gas tank after dark is better on high ozone days,” Lotz said. “Since we can’t control sunlight and heat, we must reduce the chemical raw ingredients if we want to reduce ozone.”

Here are a few tips from the ALA to help protect yourself from ozone:

• Pay attention to forecasts for high air pollution days to know when to take precautions.

• Avoid exercising near high-traffic areas or outdoors when pollution levels are high.

• Do not let anyone smoke indoors.

• Reduce the use of fireplaces and wood-burning stoves.
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View other articles written Heather R. Breaux

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