Bad air days common so far this summer

Feeling a bit stuffy these days? You’re not alone — stagnating weather patterns and excessive heat, coupled with a heavy pollen load, made for difficult breathing conditions for some this month.

Take Joan McDonald, 66, of St. Petersburg, Fla., who was in a Sylva pharmacy recently shopping for allergy medicine. She was surprised to discover her allergies in “high gear” in the supposed pristine mountains of Western North Carolina.

“I can’t breathe,” said McDonald, who was camping in a local RV park. “I’m totally stuffed up.”

She’s got plenty of company. But what is simply a discomfort for people such as McDonald presents potential real dangers for others. Ozone levels have prompted a series of warnings from air monitoring agencies, and it’s early yet in the season.

Air quality officials earlier this month warned of “Code Orange” conditions at elevations higher than 4,000 feet, and yellow — moderate — conditions down the mountains some.

Ozone comes from sources such as automobile tailpipes, “baking” in heat and sunlight on hot days.

Exposure can impair lung function, cause respiratory irritation, aggravate asthma symptoms and weaken the immune system, experts say. Not to mention particulates are creating a heavy haze over the aptly named “Smoky” Mountains, though recent rains have helped improve visibility.

Jim Renfro, air quality specialist for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, said although the air-quality situation obviously isn’t terrific, it’s actually an improvement over the 1990s, say, when air quality was even poorer. Clampdowns on emissions have made a difference.

“We are heading in the right direction,” said Renfro, who has been helping to monitor the quality of the air in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park since about 1986.

And there will need to be even more improvements, because the bar will be raised again this summer.

Renfro said yet tougher restrictions are coming down the pike. This increases the likelihood of even more bad-air warnings, though ironically, the air quality could actually be improved, he said.

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