Columbus (Dispatch) — The Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission has announced air-quality alerts on 15 days since Jan. 1, 2010. Of those, 12 turned out to be false alarms. That might sound comforting, but it’s really not.
Days such as Friday, when the ozone level in the air actually was unhealthy, often are not predicted and alerts are not issued. Of the 12 days that central Ohio air was unhealthy in 2010 and this year, only three had alerts.
That 25 percent success rate also held true in 2009, when only two of eight days with poor air quality were preceded by alerts.
“It’s really important that they get the alerts out there and that people are paying attention,” said Shelly Kiser, director of advocacy for the American Lung Association in Ohio. “Possible effects range from mild to severe asthma attacks or heart attack if there is particulate matter in the air.”
So how do the experts decide when to issue an alert? Weather forecasters take into consideration several factors: historical knowledge of the area; current weather and air quality; and the possibility that pollutants from other areas will move into the region.
“From that information, we make a weather forecast,” said Patrick Zahn, forecaster for Sonoma Technology, the company based in Petaluma, Calif., that MORPC uses to monitor and predict air quality in central Ohio.
Based on Sonoma’s findings, an Air Quality Index rating, on a scale of 0 to 500, is assigned for the day and an alert, if needed, is issued by 2 p.m. the day before.
The Air Quality Index is a national standard that tells how polluted the air is at a given time. The index takes into account both ground-level ozone – smog – and the amount of particulate matter – soot – in the air. Those are the two pollutants that pose the greatest risk to human health.
A rating of more than 100 is considered unhealthy for sensitive groups, including people with asthma, elderly people, children, people who are active outside and those with lung diseases. There are six categories, ranging from “good” to “hazardous.”
“Our threshold for an alert is 101,” said Ashley Lester, spokeswoman for MORPC. “There are times when it is going to be close, but we don’t issue an alert until we think it is going to be 101.”
Dr. Karen McCoy, a lung specialist at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, said poor air quality is a risk for everyone, not only those in the sensitive group.
“There are lots of studies that have shown that, with poorer air quality, there are more deaths for all causes, in all ages of people,” McCoy said, adding that heart attacks and strokes increase.
Doctors recommend that people limit their activity outside, if possible, when the air quality is poor.
Daily air-quality forecasts are listed on the back page of the Metro & State section of The Dispatch and also at morpc.org.