It’s hot. It’s humid. Yet, people are still out running.
Perhaps they have good health in mind or the latest photo from a celebrity beach sighting, but they could actually be putting themselves at risk, officials say.
For several days this week, the Maryland Department of the Environment issued a Code Red air quality alert for several areas of Maryland, meaning concentrations of air pollution made being outside unhealthy for the general population.
Local doctors and experts warn that running on such days could have long-term health consequences, especially for those with underlying health problems like asthma or lung disease. For the healthy it's less of a short-term issue.
“Bad air is bad air,” said Dr. Clifford S. Mitchell, assistant director for Environmental Health and Food Protection at the Maryland Department of Health & Mental Hygiene. “It can have a physiological effect on anybody. People with heart and lung disease are especially at risk.”
According to the Clean Air Partners website, the air quality alerts put out through the Maryland Department of the Environment are measured by the Air Quality Index, which ranges from Code Green or “good,” with little or no risk, to Code Purple or “very unhealthy,” when more serious health effects could occur. Codes Orange and Red are both deemed “unhealthy” by the index.
The index measures five major pollutants regulated by the Clean Air Act, including particulate matter, ozone, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide.
There have been 11 Code Orange days and five Code Red days in Maryland this year, making it a less air-polluted summer than last year—so far, according to Jay Apperson, spokesperson for the Maryland Department of the Environment.
Mitchell explained that Code Red and Code Orange days are those in which there is a combination of general high temperatures, high ozone levels and high particulate levels in the environment. They are typically hot, hazy days with a high heat index.
Mitchell said bad air can trigger asthma attacks and a host of other health problems and high temperatures can put people at risk for heat-related injuries.
“My advice to people is to exercise when its cooler in the mornings—before the heat of the day and before atmospheric activity has created the worst pollutants,” Mitchell said. “Later in the day you still have an accumulation of bad air quality.”
Dr. Esteban Schabelman, assistant medical director of the ER at Howard County General Hospital, had similar sentiments.
About Code Orange days, he said, “Exposure can risk making a chronic lung or heart condition worse, causing an asthma attack or even causing some lung diseases if the exposure is prolonged over months and years.”
People with asthma and other lung diseases may require more medication and visit emergency rooms more often, he said.
Schabelman recommended that people who are very active, children, older adults and those with heart and lung disease limit their outdoor exposure on such days.
“If you already have a chronic lung condition, please make especially sure to have your rescue medication with you at all times,” he stated in an e-mail.
In addition to the pollutants, the heat is also something to be wary of this summer.
According to the National Weather Service of Baltimore/Washington, this is the seventh warmest summer on record for the Baltimore area with an average temperature of 76.7 degrees Fahrenheit.
Mitchell advised that on days of such high heat, people should get plenty of hydration.
“If you feel at all uncomfortable with dizziness, nausea, cramping, these are all signs of dehydration,” Mitchell warned. “Stop immediately, hydrate and get into a cool environment.”
As for those serious runners out there, they seem to be taking the weather and pollution warnings in stride.
“I don’t pay too much attention to [the pollution alerts],” said Doug Mock, an Ellicott City resident and competitive runner. “But I will make sure that I have access to water with the heat and humidity .… As far as the air quality is concerned I just go out there and go. For me, it wouldn’t be so much of a health thing as a quality-of-workout thing.”
Adds runner Greg Jubb, “It’s definitely something to think about, but the first thing I think about is hydration.”
Eric Tucker, a Howard County running coach, said he does change course on Code Red days.
“When there is a Code Red day I will generally run on the treadmill if it is one of my scheduled running days, or I will run very late in the evening just before sunset, but generally I hit the treadmill,” Tucker stated in an e-mail.
“For our Team In Training participants we recommend that on Code Red days they either run inside, first thing in the morning or very late in the evening. Personally, I am not a morning person, so I generally stick with options one or two.”
Apperson of the Maryland Department of the Environment says that it is important that people understand the Index.
“We do want people to understand the forecast and to take the appropriate action,” Apperson said.
He said that besides heeding the health warnings, there are things people can do to help lower air pollution.
“People cannot drive so many miles or take public transportation or put off painting or use paint that is oil based,” he said. “There are lots of things that people can do in response to what the forecast is in terms of behavior and how that might effect air quality.”
To sign up for air alerts or to learn more on the topic, visit: http://www.cleanairpartners.net/aqiinfo.cfm, or http://www.mde.state.md.us/Pages/Home.aspx
To reach the Air Quality Hotline, dial: 410-537-3247