Thursday, May 6, 2004

Health officials say the “Code Red” of recent summers is no longer the worst pollution alert in the metropolitan region. The new threshold is “Code Purple,” for days when pollution is so thick that everyone — even the young and the healthy — should avoid strenuous outdoor activity.

“Even healthy people could suffer permanent scarring of lung tissue if they’re exposed on these days for long periods of time,” said Joan Rohlfs of Clean Air Partners, a government watchdog group.

Ms. Rohlfs said Code Purple was first issued in 2002 to comply with new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) guidelines and that two such alerts were issued in the District last year and in 2002.

Monitoring agencies will still use the EPA’s standard color-coded advisories, with purple as the most potentially dangerous condition and with green as the safest.

“The region’s worst pollution is from May to September because the heat during those months causes more of a reaction to the pollutants released in the air,” said Jen Desimore, a meteorologist with the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

The EPA’s Air Quality Index measured only ozone pollution until 1997, when it expanded to include eight-hour forecasting for tiny particles that come from combustion engines, sulfur dioxides and nitrogen oxides. Lawsuits prevented the agency from enforcing the new guidelines until last October.

Judith Katz, director of the EPA’s air protection division, expects the new standard to be in place nationwide by the end of the year.

Tuesday was World Asthma Day, and at least two Northeast residents said they appreciated the tighter regulations.

Cedric Burnette, 10, was diagnosed with asthma a year ago. His mother, Sharon, said she and her son welcome the inclusion of particles in the forecasts.

“My son suffers especially from particles and pollen,” she said. “I think it will be a lot easier for us to respond to the illness. But I wish the air was cleaner. The air in this city is not clean.”

Dr. Shane Kraus, president emeritus of the Virginia Academy of Family Physicians, also approves of the new federal standard.

He said people with allergies, congestive heart failure, bronchitis and asthma are especially vulnerable to air particulates.

“They cause inflammation of the lungs, which is the essential component of asthma,” Dr. Kraus said.

However, health experts say the bigger concern is the pollution, not the measurements.

“The environment does play a big part in our medication,” said Laurie Taylor, asthma education program manager for the American Lung Association. “I believe we gave D.C. an ‘F’ for horrible air quality.”

According to Clean Air Partners, motor vehicles are the biggest contributors in the Washington-Baltimore region — accounting for 30 percent to 40 percent of the pollution.

Officials do not expect an immediate increase in the number of serious health alerts but say the total number of alerts is likely to continue to increase under the new EPA rules.

“It is easier to exceed the new standard,” said Daniel Salkovitz, a meteorologist with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. “There will be an increase in the total number of alerts.”

Randy Mosier, manager of Maryland’s Air Quality Planning and Policy division, said he does not anticipate many serious alerts in Maryland this summer.

To check daily air-quality forecasts, visit the Web site or call 1-877/515-4593.

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