Heat waves can usher in poor air quality, health problems

Published on August 22, 2014

With a heat advisory in effect until Monday night for most of Kentucky and Southern Indiana, it’s a good time to think about air quality, which can have a real effect on health.

Dr. Rodney Folz, a pulmonologist with University of Louisville Physicians, said heat waves can usher in poor air quality, and this can cause health issues, especially for people with chronic conditions such as cardiovascular disease, asthma or COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, also known as emphysema and chronic bronchitis).

Heat waves and poor air quality often go hand-in-hand because lingering high pressure creates a stagnant environment. With light winds and no precipitation, pollutants don’t get cleared from the air, and they build up near ground level.

In addition to making chronic lung conditions worse, particle and ozone pollution can increase the risk of heart disease, asthma and COPD exacerbations, even early death, said Dr. Folz. Children and those over 65 also can be sensitive to the pollution.

The 2014 State of the Air report from the American Lung Association shows that air quality has improved in the United States from the past. But 147.6 million people, or nearly half the nation, still live in areas where air pollution can be unhealthy – including Louisville. In fact, the city ranks in the top 20 in the U.S. for both ozone (also known as smog) and year-round particle pollution, a mix of solid and liquid particles that come from coal-fired plants and vehicle exhaust. 

This summer has been unseasonably mild in the Louisville area, but when the heat is on, the pollution can be, too.  On days when air quality is expected to reach unhealthy levels, an air quality alert will be issued, and these aren’t something that should be ignored.

Air quality affects how well you can breathe, and like the weather, it can change by the day. When air quality is poor, people may see an acute worsening of their condition, with shortness of breath, a feeling that they can’t catch their breath, a tightening in the chest, a cough from the irritation or even bronchitis.

“If you have any kind of lung condition, the best thing to do is to avoid going outside on alert days,” said Dr. Folz.

He said that on those days, air quality may be particularly bad over problematic areas like downtown, or near traffic congestion, where hydrocarbons and diesel exhaust hover in the air.

Symptoms may appear hours or days after exposure. “It really does send a lot of people to the emergency room, and we see an increase in hospital admissions,” Dr. Folz said. “And the longer your exposure, the increased risk you have of developing worsening symptoms.”

For people without any kind of a chronic lung condition, air quality is usually not a concern for short exposure, but those who plan to be active outside, such as exercising or working, should wait, he said. That’s because when you are active, you’re taking in more air and exposing the lungs to a greater volume of pollution.

Knowing what the air quality is can help people adjust their activities, and Dr. Folz notes there are websites and apps to keep track. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s “AIRNow” and the American Lung Association’s “State of the Air” apps report the air quality index (or AQI), which indicates how clean the air is, and notify you when the air quality is bad.

The Louisville Metro Air Pollution Control District website, www.louisvilleky.gov/APCD,  also gives a daily air quality forecast, and people can sign up to receive the forecast and alerts sent to them daily via email or text.