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Weekday mornings on Michigan Radio, Doug Tribou hosts NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to news radio program in the country.

A Michigan pulmonologist shares tips for keeping your lungs safe when air quality is poor

Breathing slowly and deeply through the nose is associated with a relaxation response, says James Nestor, author of <em>Breath</em>.<em> </em>As the diaphragm lowers, you're allowing more air into your lungs and your body switches to a more relaxed state.
Sebastian Laulitzki/ Science Photo Library
Wildfires in Canada have lowered the air quality in much of Michigan's Lower Peninsula. The region has also had a number of days with high ozone levels this spring. Pollution exposure is especially risky for people with asthma and other lung conditions.

Smoke from recent wildfires in Canada is causing poor air quality in huge portions of the U.S., including much of Michigan's Lower Peninsula.

The National Weather Service issued air quality alerts Friday for dozens of Michigan counties.

There are several different levels within alerts, including "unhealthy for sensitive groups," which covers people with asthma and other breathing issues. Some Michigan communities have also hit the "unhealthy" level, which covers a broader category of people.

What should you do to keep yourself and your family safe when the air quality is bad?

For advice, Michigan Radio turned to Dr. Lawrence MacDonald, the chief of pulmonary medicine for Detroit Medical Center Huron Valley Sinai Hospital in Commerce Township. MacDonald spoke with Morning Edition host Doug Tribou.

Doug Tribou: What should people be thinking about when they start to hear about air quality alerts in the area where they live?

Dr. Lawrence MacDonald: I would discuss what to do if you have lung disease. Really, the most important thing to do is to have a relationship with a primary care provider. So if you have asthma, have a plan, because asthmatics have symptoms not just from air pollution, but from passive exposure to smoke, campfires, cleaning agents, workplace stuff, [and] if they have a virus.

All those things, including the air pollution, can cause an asthma exacerbation. So really need to have a plan, and the plan usually includes either to go on inhalers or take steroid pills and then to get into your doctor quickly to be seen.

"If you have lung disease, and if you see that air quality index is very high, just stay in that day. Try to minimize your outdoor exposure. Use your air conditioner."
Dr. Lawrence MacDonald

DT: What are the basic steps that people can take to reduce the risks to their health, to reduce the exposure when the air quality so poor?

LM: Well, the most important thing is: if it's really bad, if you have lung disease, and if you see that air quality index is very high, just stay in that day. Try to minimize your outdoor exposure. Use your air conditioner. That has a filter on it. Take your medicines.

There are a lot of things that can make a person short of breath. It may be your asthma or maybe your COPD. But if you've worsened and you don't know why, or if you have other symptoms, see your doctor.

DT: Of course, there's advice with these air quality alerts to avoid strenuous activity outdoors, but there are plenty of people who just simply have to be outside, whether it's construction workers or postal carriers or landscaping crews. What would you advice be for people who are in that situation and maybe don't have lung disease, but know they're going to be exposed for a significant amount of time?

LM: It's not a terrible idea to wear an N95 mask. I can't give you evidence that it'll prevent disease. But if [masking] doesn't interfere with your work, it's not going to hurt you. Try to avoid jobs that expose you to additional dust, additional fumes during those times.

And if you have lung disease — asthmatics still work as construction workers and in other areas where there's dust exposure all the time — have your inhaler with you.

DT: School's winding down for most kids, but for a lot of kids the summer means sports, lots of time outside, whether it's at camps or pools or just playing. Do you have concerns about long-term health implications for kids who may not be having problems now if they get into some extended exposure?

LM: We know that long-term exposure to even lower levels of pollutants causes lung disease and probably excess mortality. But that doesn't mean your kid shouldn't play baseball, doesn't mean they can't go to soccer. It doesn't mean they can't ride their bike.

But something you also have to touch on is smoking. It's interesting. There are people who try to quantify, "How bad is air pollution? How do you compare that to smoking cigarettes?" Some of the air quality indexes have been very high, as you know, recently. In some major cities like New York, more than 350.

If you look at the exposure to the lungs from that, it's probably the equivalent of smoking about a pack and a half a day. So if you smoke cigarettes, you're doing this every day of your life. If you're going to stay home from work and smoke a half a pack a day of cigarettes, maybe you should have just gone to work and worn a mask.

Editor's notes: Some quotes in this article have been edited for length and clarity. You can listen to the full interview near the top of this page.

Doug Tribou joined the Michigan Public staff as the host of Morning Edition in 2016. Doug first moved to Michigan in 2015 when he was awarded a Knight-Wallace journalism fellowship at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
Katheryne Friske is the weekend morning host and producer for All Things Considered.
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