Air Quality Alert Days: Getting the Message?

by kespeland on August 5, 2008

It’s been hot the last few days. And when the air hangs windless in this Ohio River Valley, heat can spell trouble. That’s when the city issues air quality alerts. Louisville’s Air Pollution Control District spokesman Matt Stull says they’re meant to serve two purposes. One is to warn people who might be more susceptible to lung trouble.

“In and of itself, the pollution is a concern. But when you add that with the heat of the day, then people with lung issues, heart issues, the very young, the very old, they’re going to really have a hard time. Number two though is to get people to do some things that would lessen the amount of pollution on that day.”

Things like taking the bus, carpooling, combining errands, not mowing the lawn until after sunset, and making sure your car is tuned up. The air quality alerts mean there’ll be a greater concentration of pollutants like soot and smog. And they’re especially bad on hot, still days. Stull says forecasters use everything from transportation data to weather models to determine whether to issue an alert.

“There are meteorologists that we work with, they have a computer model that they use, and then our monitoring people here participate in a daily call with them. And they com up, you know, based on what that model tells them and then based on their own knowledge, you know, what we’re looking at for the next day.”

And every fall, Stull says they conduct an independent survey of residents to find out if they’re paying attention to the alerts. And, if they’re paying attention, do they do anything different?

“What we’ve seen really over the last seven years is a gradual increase in the knowledge base of people, and more importantly, we’ve also seen that more and more people are willing not just to learn about it but to do something about it.”

The survey results show that at in the fall of 2005, about 86 percent of respondents said they’d heard of an air quality alert day. By November 2007, the number was 97 percent. Most respondents understood that air quality alerts meant that people with lung problems might have more trouble on these days. As for whether they said they were more likely to do things to help the air, the results are mixed. In 2006, just 5 percent said they’d ride the bus. Last year, only 4 percent. Barry Barker heads Louisville transit system, TARC. He says Louisvillians may not be hearing about air quality alerts with enough time to react.

“Our sense is that the levels of ridership don’t change very much because people have already made their plans of how they’re going to get around on that given day.”

It’s one thing to make plans for the day when you don’t have asthma or another kind of lung condition. But if you do, an air quality alert can send an entirely different message.

The afternoon shift is just beginning for emergency doctor Brenden Wetherton at Jewish Hospital Medical Center East. This emergency department will probably see between 60 and 65 patients today. Normally, about three of those would complain of trouble breathing, wheezing, severe asthma. But today the city has issued an air quality alert.

In a quiet office outside triage, Wetherton says that number could be up today.

“We’re seeing the same number of patients on the good days and bad days, but there’s an increase between about 60% based on the respiratory complaints.”

Wetherton says he checks for air quality alerts before work. He says he believes they’re effective—both in terms of how they help him treat patients as well as how some patients might take precautions.

“I might spend a little more time with the patient discussing the do’s and don’ts on those type of days. I have heard patients, when I mention it’s a poor air quality day, they do say, oh yes, I did hear that.”

Still, even if you don’t already have respiratory problems, Wetherton says poor air quality affects us all. The city’s annual survey about air quality alert days shows that more residents are beginning to believe they have can have an impact on air quality by changing certain behaviors. The extent to which they’re changing those behaviors is still an open question. For WFPL, I’m Kristin Espeland.

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