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Air quality warnings have spiked in Kansas City. Here's what it means for our health

The Kansas City Power and Light Building is just one of the iconic Art Deco-style buildings located in the metro.
Carlos Moreno
The Mid-America Regional Council is on pace to issue a record number of air quality alerts this year, possibly exceeding those issued in 2012, when MARC issued 29 alerts warning of poor air quality.

The Mid-America Regional Council has issued a staggering nine ozone alerts for poor air quality in the past month. Experts say weather is a factor but they also say there are things people can do to stay healthy — and cut down on ozone in the area.

At KC CARE Health Centers, more people of all ages have been coming in lately with symptoms associated with seasonal allergies — uncharacteristic for this time of year — and worsening symptoms of asthma.

Sarah Dashwood, a physician with the center, said this concerning uptick has occurred within the last couple of weeks. The increase in patients coincides with a spike in air quality alerts issued by The Mid-America Regional Council (MARC) in the past month.

“Many patients are reporting heightened levels of congestion, itchy or watery eyes, sore throat, difficulty breathing and increased fatigue — particularly when spending extended periods of time outdoors or with physical exertion,” Dashwood said.

MARC has issued nine ozone alerts since the ozone season began March 1. Unlike the ozone far above the earth’s surface, ozone closer to the ground is a highly chemically reactive substance and harmful to humans.

The majority of the alerts issued in the last month have been orange alerts. During orange alerts, people who are at risk include older adults, young children and those with respiratory or heart conditions. People in these groups are cautioned to limit time outdoors.

Karen Clawson, air quality manager for MARC, said the stable weather may be responsible for this spike.

“We haven't seen a lot of wind, we haven't seen a lot of rain, things that would make it hard for ozone pollution to form,” Clawson said. “We see ozone alert after ozone alert because a lot of that pollution is hanging around overnight. We're building upon that residual ozone pollution from the prior day.”

MARC has yet to issue a red alert this year, which warns of unhealthy conditions for the general population, but Clawson said she doesn't expect the pace of air quality warnings to decrease throughout the summer.

Right now, we're on pace to match or even exceed 2012, she said, when MARC issued 29 air quality alerts.

“We're going to have warmer weather, of course, and we're not expected to have a lot of rain to help wash (polluted air) away, so we are predicting that we'll see more ozone alerts in the rest of the season,” Clawson said.

Ozone pollution can cause chest pains, coughing, nausea and difficulty breathing. In some cases it can trigger an asthma attack, said Jay Portnoy, an allergist at Children’s Mercy Kansas City.

He said this recent spike has not led to an increase in hospitalizations among children during a time of year when child admissions for asthma are typically low. But he said prolonged ozone alerts are especially dangerous for adults. Health care providers are carefully watching for increased hospitalizations among adults.

Portnoy also emphasized ways people can help reduce ozone in the environment, like changing driving habits or when you mow the lawn.

“We recommend that it's possible (to reduce ozone) if people can work from home, if you have a job that allows that, or you're able to take a different form of transportation,” Portnoy said, “And then postponing your mowing and refueling your vehicle until after 7 p.m. on an evening where we expect to have high ozone days.”

You can check for air quality alerts and other information on the MARC AirQKC website.

As KCUR's health reporter, I cover the Kansas City metro in a way that reflects our expanding understanding of what health means and the ways it touches different communities and different areas in distinct ways. I will provide a platform to amplify ideas and issues often underrepresented in the media and marginalized people and communities in an authentic and honest way that goes beyond the surface of the issues. I will endeavor to find and include in my work local experts and organizations that have their ears to the ground and a beat on the health needs of the community. Reach me at noahtaborda@kcur.org.
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