It used to be a cure-all in homespun medical advice, but as the mercury reaches the triple digits, “fresh air” might sometimes do more harm than good.
Air pollution, especially evident during recent ozone alerts, might be triggering otherwise dormant genetic conditions, said OMRF scientist Dario Ramirez, Ph.D. Ramirez’s work at OMRF centers on how environmental factors can affect human health, with a focus on lung disease.
“When ozone and other air pollutants enter the lungs, they cause inflammation,” he said. “That kind of activity can make already existing conditions – like obesity, diabetes or asthma – even worse. It can also precipitate diseases to which people are genetically predisposed.”
While some diseases are purely genetic, most are caused by a combination of environmental and genetic factors, Ramirez said.
“Once we understand how those inflammatory events happen and how they trigger systemic diseases, we can develop therapies to protect the most susceptible populations, including the very young and the elderly,” he said. “On ozone alert days, the environmental triggers are much worse.”
According to Oklahoma Environmental Quality Department program specialist Curt Goeller, the state issues ozone alerts on days when predicted numbers of ozone are above .075 parts per million.
“That might not sound like much, especially compared to Dallas and Los Angeles, but it’s more than we like to see,” said Goeller.
Background levels of ozone are at .05 on a clear day, he said. Oklahoma DEQ uses a model designed by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Ramirez said the best thing to do is avoid exposure to the pollution by staying indoors as much as possible during alerts. When inside, air-conditioning and a clean home with a minimum of pollution-carrying dust, can make a safer environment for those susceptible to harm from ozone and other pollutants.
The number of Oklahoma’s ozone alert days varies year-to-year based on weather patterns. The state only had about four last year, said Goeller, but this year is shaping up to be worse.
“Usually we start seeing them in mid-August,” he said. “When we started having them in June, I knew we were in for a bad summer.”