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
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
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?
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
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?
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
on the connection between autism and environmental risk factors.
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.
Labels: air quality, Magee-Womens Hospital of UPMC, Pitt's Graduate School of Public Health