Thursday, November 21, 2013

How’s the air out there?

By Ginger Wireman, Environmental Education & Outreach Specialist, Nuclear Waste Program

Did you know that in Los Angeles an estimated 9,000 people each year die from lung and heart diseases aggravated by air pollution? "Bad air days" have decreased dramatically since the region implemented stringent clean air laws beginning in the 1970s. But air pollution still kills.

In Washington, we are lucky to have topography and climate, as well as smaller populations that help us avoid the air pollution experienced by places like Los Angeles or Denver. But we are not without our problems, and I recently witnessed firsthand the impact of poor air quality on a population.

In October I went with the Richland High School marching band to competitions in Spokane and Yakima. Marching band is a physically demanding activity. I marched for six years and know personally the amount of effort one expends in a six-to-eight-minute show. Walking, dancing, scurrying, AND playing and carrying an instrument (or twirling an implement in color guard) is exhausting!

You may take the field in competition

Right before each band takes the field, the announcer asks, "Drum Majors, is your band ready?" And although they all appeared ready at the Yakima competition, I watched in dismay as soloists in three different bands bombed. None were in our band, but as a parent, I want all kids to succeed. I felt so bad for them.

Those kids, playing trumpet, baritone, and sousaphone, respectively, had played beautifully a week prior in Spokane. But in Yakima, they missed notes and were barely audible. They clearly didn’t have enough breath support!

Since I knew each had played well the week prior, I wondered what was going on. Had they all developed colds that week? Or was it something in the air? A black haze hung over the Yakima area when we drove into town. I assume smudge pots were in use to protect apples from frost.

The following Monday I found out one of our students was unable to perform in the preliminary competition (at 2 p.m.) because her asthma was flaring up.

Something hazy going on

I wanted to see what the air quality was those days, so I visited Ecology’s Air Monitoring website. The website is quite easy to use and shows real time information for most areas of Washington. It displays colored dots ranging from green-for-good to dark-red-for-hazardous air.

To access a report for the days in question, I entered the competition dates for each city and compared the reports. My suspicions were confirmed. The air had two or three times more particulate matter (PM 2.5) throughout the day in Yakima than it had in Spokane. PM 2.5 particles are so tiny and get past your nose hairs and into your lungs.

Air quality was considered moderate, as opposed to good, much of both days. But it did jump into the "unhealthy for sensitive groups" range during the afternoon in Yakima, or greater than 25 micrograms per cubic meter (ug/m^3).

Is your family ready?

I'm going to check the Air Monitoring website in advance for the remainder of my child's marching career and be ready to alert chaperones to watch for kids who may have an asthmatic response. I'd encourage anyone with children who engage in rigorous outdoor activities to bookmark the page and arm themselves with information.

No comments: