- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 2, 2000

When the blistering summer sun scalds exposed skin, a sunburn is sure to follow. But on Code Red days, skin isn't the only part of the body at risk of being burned.

Local forecasters, in conjunction with the Maryland Department of the Environment and the Washington Metropolitan Council of Governments, issue Code Red alerts on days when air pollution is expected to exceed levels predetermined by the Environmental Protection Agency.

"What we're forecasting is ground-level ozone," explains Bill Ryan, a meteorologist at the University of Maryland's depart-ment of meteorology and part of the team that decides when to declare Code Red. "Ozone is an oxidant, and what happens is, if you breathe in large levels of it, it can cause the equivalent of a sunburn in your lungs."

Code Red days typically occur when temperatures reach at least 90 degrees with little or no breeze and no precipitation. The intense sunlight under such conditions causes air pollutants to react and form ground-level ozone, the main ingredient in smog.

Ground-level ozone is a health hazard, unlike its counterpart in the Earth's upper atmosphere, which provides vital protection from ultraviolet radiation, explains Bill Burroughs, managing director of Endzone Partners, a public-private partnership.

Endzone Partners works to increase awareness of ground-level ozone and how people contribute to the problem of air pollution, Mr. Burroughs says. If people cut down on the use of paints and automobiles on Code Red days, the overall number of future Code Red days could be reduced by 20 percent to 30 percent, he says.

"Ozone is the most frequently found air pollutant in the Washington, D.C., area," says Dr. Alfred Munzer, a lung specialist at Washington Adventist Hospital in Takoma Park and past president of the American Lung Association. "In fact, it's the most common pollutant in most major metropolitan areas."

Though the invisible gas may dissipate rapidly, ozone takes little time to react with and damage living tissue.

Likening exposure to ozone to an internal sunburn is an accurate description of the consequences of ignoring Code Red alerts, Dr. Munzer adds.

"It [ozone] interferes with the lung's ability to fight off infection," he explains. "It is especially dangerous to children, whose lungs are still developing; to the elderly, whose respiratory systems may be failing; and also to those people who suffer from respiratory ail-ments like asthma, bronchitis, emphysema and pneumonia."

Anyone who falls into one or more of those categories should heed the Code Red alert and stay indoors.

The rest of the population should limit the time spent outside and avoid strenuous activity, Dr. Munzer says.

Children are particularly vulnerable to ozone because they inhale more per pound of body weight than adults and spend more time playing outdoors in the sweltering summer months at the peak of Code Red season.

"Even healthy people should avoid outdoor exercise on Code Red days," Dr. Munzer adds.

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