Olympic air: Labored breathing in the quest for gold | St. Louis Public Radio

Olympic air: Labored breathing in the quest for gold

Aug 14, 2008

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: August 14, 2008- mThe Olympics are in full swing. Our athletes are bringing home the gold.

Still, all is not well in Beijing. Concerns have been swirling around Beijing's air quality for months. China's weather exacerbates the effects of the pollution. And if Mother Nature has any consistency at all, it's in being inconsistent. It will be largely a matter of luck whether the best -or worst- air quality corresponds with the outdoor Olympic events.

The main source of air troubles in China appear to stem from vehicle emissions and factory pollutants. Attempts at clean-up began in 2006, with Chinese government officials instituting emission controls and traffic restrictions.

The government has focused on halving automobile use during the games and temporarily shutting down factories to further reduce the effects of air pollutants during the games. But this has had little impact on the overall air quality.

An inconvenient truth

"Harmful pollutants ... can trigger an attack of underlying lung conditions," said Dr. Mario Castro, pulmonologist and professor of medicine at Washington University School of Medicine. "We counsel these athletes not to be exposed during periods when they will have to tolerate high levels of potential pollutants."

For those athletes participating in the Olympic games, this could prove virtually impossible. Since air quality forecasting can only be done about three days out, at best, this is likely not be enough time for rescheduling marathons or long-distance bike races.

Poor air quality is a danger for participating athletes with underlying lung conditions like asthma, but it could also prove harmful for all other athletes, and even visitors and spectators. "Even in healthy individuals who are exposed, there is potential for [bad air quality] to be irritating to the airways," Castro cautioned. "It could cause sneezing, drainage, cough and sputum production."

Breathing easy

Lessons learned from what the athletes are being forced to endure overseas can be helpful to the rest of us here in the States.

"Don't exercise during peak periods of vehicle traffic. Exercise early in the morning and far away from highways and congested areas," Castro recommended. For people with asthma, a further ounce of prevention may be in the cards. "We can prescribe preventive medications before exercise."

Castro also suggests monitoring air quality on a daily basis and planning your schedule accordingly. On a day with high levels of pollutants, stay inside. And "certainly don't exercise outside," he cautioned. "When you do have to travel outside, use your car, turn on the air conditioner and use the recycled air."

The same holds true indoors. The best thing, according to Castro, is to shut all the windows and doors and turn on the AC.

And the athletes in China; what about them? "It's not good; this will potentially be a big issue for this Olympics and there's really not much you can do," said Castro. For those headed out to the games, or for those at home following along, three-day forecasts on Beijing air quality are posted daily and accessible at https://www.beijingairquality.cn .

So maybe Michael Jackson with his surgical mask had it right all along? Dr. Castro says no. "There is really no good mask for this purpose," he said. "All those masks tend to restrict breathing which is exactly what you don't want."

For more information

Air quality in Beijing

Local and national air quality

Breathing easy at the Olympics

Dr. Cindy Haines is managing editor of Healthday-Physician's Briefing and president of Haines Medical Communications Inc., a full-service medical communications and consulting firm. As a board-certified family physician, Haines is well-versed in all areas of health care, with particular interest in fitness, nutrition, and psychological health.