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Breathing Easier with Smog

By Dr. Peter W. Kujtan, B.Sc., M.D., Ph.D.

Article printed in the June 18-19, 2005 issue of
The Mississauga News under the feature: Health & Wellness, Medical Matters.
Portrait of Dr. Peter W. Kujtan, supplied 2005
Dr. Peter W. Kujtan

One of my pet peeves involves the lack of understanding of what a 'heat alert' entails. The sporting community is perhaps the most at fault. Heat wave alerts are seen as a point of information for the infirm and sick by many sports organizations. Using the 'it doesn't apply to me as long as I wear a hat and drink water philosophy' during alerts is foolhardy. Sending children out to run around in hot smog-laden air is even worse.

Engaging in strenuous physical activity during an extreme heat alert does not make one 'tougher'. Breathing in toxic fumes, heavy metals and such simply taxes natural body systems to limits usually reserved for last-ditch survival. There is no benefit or 'remaining effect' in doing this and it should not be confused with acclimatization in which there is a slow and controlled introduction to a new atmosphere for the purpose of adaptation.

The price paid by the body for survival in adverse heat conditions is an increase in unwanted inflammatory substances and waste products. We see many deaths in which the weather is a final factor pushing constellations to health problems over the edge and resulting in a final cascade.

June has certainly brought a diversity of severe weather to our part of the country. Have you been bothered with a sore throat, itchy eyes, chest heaviness and fatigue lately? You are not alone.

Smog is a term derived from the words "smoke" and "fog" used at one time to describe forest fire fallouts. You would probably be surprised to know that ozone is the major gas in smog. Ozone gas is an odorless molecule made of the three oxygen atoms, and is produced when intense sunlight hits nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds (VOC's) in close proximity to each other.

Smog also contains fine particles of dust, chemicals, and vapors. Almost half of the smog in our region gets its raw materials from exhaust fumes of combustion engines found in cars, trucks, planes, construction machinery, and includes small engines. Dust is added from construction sites, agricultural operations, industry and burning. Odd vapors seep in after escaping from refueling, dry-cleaning, painting and using other chemical applications. When the density of ground level ozone reaches 50 ppm, a smog alert is issued.

This man-made hazard affects us all. A 7-day run of severe smog is much more hazardous than a day or two here and there. Think of this smog as a mild acid capable of burning sensitive membranes such as those found in your lungs. The more air you move across these membranes, the worse the effect.

Choosing to engage in activities requiring large amounts of air movement is a poor idea. Encouraging your children to move large amounts of smog through their lungs is a ludicrous idea. Think of it as a sunburn of the lungs that can dampen the immune system. Children are more susceptible to smog because they have smaller airways and more immature immune systems.

Remaining indoors is a strategy that works for short periods of time. After a few days, the smog concentrations in our homes equalize with the outside air. Air conditioning does not remove smog, it simply makes the accompanying temperature extremes more bearable. Well-designed air cleaners can remove much of the particulate matter, but they can get pricey.

Smog usually occurs during hot and muggy weather conditions. In Ontario, we are estimating that the death rate attributable to smog will be well above the average figure of 2000 victims this year. (Note: Report from the Ontario Medical Association says 5,800 people will die prematurely because of smog in 2005). Half of that number will occur in the GTA-905 area (Greater Toronto Area). Those at highest risk are children, adults with respiratory and heart problems, and certain people with unusual sensitivities to smog.

Family doctors get overwhelmed with patients suffering from chest pains, migraines, asthma, sore throats and burning eyes. Hospital admissions take a dramatic increase during prolonged smog alerts. Well-designed face masks can help eliminate the larger particles out of the smog, but allow ground level ozone to pass unobstructed. We are reaping the effects of that which we have sowed.

We have also seen some extreme temperatures and humidity. I am not certain that most people understand the concept of "humidex" which is a calculation used to describe how the humidity and temperature combine to produce a certain comfort level. Your normal body temperature is 37° C. One way of keeping our body that way is to dump internal heat outside and to use perspiration to cool ourselves. For example, jogging when the humidex is above 37° C is quite unwise because you simply cannot cool your body for prolonged periods of time. Water depletion occurs quickly and core temperatures begin to rise. Yet we continue to see large groups of youngsters running around sports fields in such unfavorable conditions.

I sometimes wonder if the severe weather advisories broadcast in the media are simply figments of my imagination. Learn about the hazards and teach your kids the safe way to survive extreme weather.


Related resources:

Air Pollution in Canada: Real-time Air Quality Index Visual Map.
Air Quality Ontario. Where Does Smog Come From?
Smog from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
Heat and smog kill thousands in Canada: study from CTV.ca News Staff.
Smog and Your Health from Health Canada.
Air pollution: should it stop you exercising? From the Guardian.
Ways to Reduce Smog eHow.
What Is Smog? Factsheet from Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment (CCME).
Smog / Air Pollution. Being Smog-Wise - What's New from Ontario Medical Association (OMA).
How to Be Smog-Wise from OMA.
Illness Costs of Air Pollution from City of Windsor, Ontario.
Beijing residents learn to cope with the choking smog. Air pollution in Beijing, China.
How to Combat Electromagnetic Smog Around the House. How to deal with electrical smog in and around the home by Polly Noble.

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