Something in the Air The Beijing Olympics Offer Ozone Lessons

In recent months, all eyes have been on China and the upcoming Beijing Olympics. Will the city be able to reduce air pollution levels enough to keep the athletes healthy and safe? Or will the marathoners have to run through Beijing city streets wearing face masks? Worldwatch Institute’s China Program Manager Yingling Liu says the timing is good. As a Beijing resident for 13 years, she knows August is the best time for blue-sky days in the ancient city.

Kenneth Rundell, a former senior physiologist at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, predicts many athletes will bring asthma medication with them, just in case. Even athletes who don’t normally have a problem may develop some shortness of breath because of smoggier air. World record-holding marathon runner Haile Gebrselassie has decided not to run the marathon in Beijing for fear of long-term health effects. Tennis champ Justine Henin has said she may opt out of the games as well.

For China, the air pollution issue is serious. Liu says transportation is the biggest factor, since Worldwatch estimates more than 1,000 new cars and trucks enter Beijing each day. Globally, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) says air pollution and ozone trigger 800,000 premature deaths each year. And 65 percent of those deaths occur in developing Asian countries, UNEP officials say.

Of Smog and Sports

The recent concern about air quality in China offers an important reminder to the U.S. as well. Smog is still a major problem, as urban sprawl chokes city highways. While we need the ozone in the stratosphere overhead to shield UV rays, the other kind of ozone—at ground level—still causes serious health threats. Ground-level ozone (a colorless gas with three oxygen molecules) forms when industrial pollution mixes with sunlight and auto emissions. In the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates five to 20 percent of Americans are susceptible to harmful effects of ozone, including respiratory problems such as asthma, chronic coughs and painful breathing.

And ozone is bad for the heart. Scientists from the National Morbidity and Mortality and Air Pollution Study at Johns Hopkins University reported cardiovascular deaths go up as ozone levels rise. Physicians believe this is because less oxygen gets to the heart if ozone interferes with lung function.

Meanwhile, new evidence published by the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) last year shows obesity makes ozone even more lethal. An estimated two-thirds of U.S. adults are overweight or obese, with a body-mass index (BMI) greater than 25, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

Children are especially vulnerable to ozone because they breathe more rapidly, so they inhale more pollutants per pound of body weight than adults, according to the American Lung Association. They also spend more time playing outdoors in the summer months, when ozone is at its worst.

Balancing the healthy benefits of exercise with concerns about ozone can be tricky for parents, says Christopher Gavigan, executive director of the Los Angeles-based advocacy organization Healthy Child, Healthy World. “As parents, we have to make those judgment calls,” Gavigan says. “You want to be safe, but you can’t live in a bubble either.”

Whenever possible, Gavigan suggests, ride bikes or take public transportation, use paint with low levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and try to avoid harmful emissions as much as you can. “All of that contributes to your greater community,” he says.

Setting a No-Ozone Zone

Environmental groups and health agencies such as the American Lung Association have pushed lawmakers to get tough on polluters and enact stricter smog limits, but were disappointed when the EPA lowered the allowable amount of smog-forming ozone to only 75 parts per billion (from 84) this past March. The new standard overrode the recommendations of the EPA’s science advisors, who wanted the standard set no higher than 70 parts per billion.

Yale University environmental scientist Michelle Bell says her research shows there really is no safe level for ozone. “Our research found that even very low levels of ozone, including those below the current standard, are associated with increased risk of mortality,” she says.

Until lawmakers get tough on polluters and put better protections in place, here are some ozone precautions all of us can take:

” Walk or ride a bike to do errands.
” Go to cleaner, rural areas to exercise.
” During smoggy summer days, take kids to indoor gyms and playgrounds.
” On bad ozone days, walk inside a mall or head for the health club.
” Plan a trip to the coast or the mountains during the worst season for ozone: May-October.
” Encourage local schools to participate in the EPA’s Clean School Bus Campaign.
” Xeriscape your yard to avoid power tools and lawn mowers—or buy a push mower.
” If you can afford it, invest in a smaller, low-emission hybrid car.
” Fill your car with gas after dusk to avoid emissions during the worst time of day for ground-level ozone (3 to 6 p.m.).

Liu says the Olympics have been an important catalyst for change in Beijing, and China in general. She points to the municipal government’s efforts to reduce coal emissions, and the new, cleaner public-transportation system. “After the games those facilities will still be there,” Liu says. “This will help raise the public awareness and exert more pressure.”