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Where there's smoke, there's health concern


© St. Petersburg Times, published February 20, 2001

The thick smoke that huffed across the Tampa Bay area at various times on Monday prompted air quality advisories, kept schoolchildren indoors and even caused the New York Yankees, in Tampa for spring training, to cut short their outdoor workout.

But while the smoke may mean trouble for people with asthma, emphysema and other chronic lung conditions, local doctors say it poses little serious threat to most residents.

Granted, for part of the day the whole region smelled like a campsite. The smoke can cloud contact lenses and make eyes water, sully clothing and make an outdoor cat smell like a smoker's couch -- but little of it reaches your lungs, respiratory experts said.

That is because the main pollutant in wood smoke, called particulate matter, is relatively large, and most of it is trapped by the nose hair, sinuses and other filters of our upper respiratory systems.

"We always say it's the stuff that you don't see that gets you," said Dr. Allan Goldman, a pulmonologist and chairman of internal medicine at the University of South Florida School of Medicine.

"I don't think for the average person there's really much risk. It would mainly be just irritation of your eyes and nose and throat and so on, but it really wouldn't be considered dangerous."

Truly dangerous gases from fires, like carbon monoxide, dissipate soon after combustion and typically pose a hazard only to firefighters or other people right on top of the blaze.

"Nobody's going to be walking in downtown Tampa and get asphyxiated," said Dr. David A. Solomon, director of pulmonary and critical care at USF and director of respiratory services at Tampa General Hospital.

"It's all based on concentration. Look how far it had to come to get here," he said. "It's just getting carried by the wind. It smells because it's wood burning."

For those with sensitive lungs, however, the smoke can aggravate bronchial tubes, causing them to tighten or become inflamed. This can trigger attacks for asthmatics and serious problems for others.

As Dr. Ivan Ackerman sat with countless others in the smoked-choked traffic on Interstate 4 on Sunday afternoon, he knew his phone would be ringing Monday.

"I found it very irritating just to be in the car, (even) with closed windows," said Ackerman, director of respiratory services at South Florida Baptist Hospital in Plant City. By noon, he had heard from 20 concerned patients.

"It is kind of dangerous to some of my patients, depending how the wind blows."

The American Lung Association of Gulfcoast Florida, the Pinellas and Pasco health departments and the state Department of Environmental Protection issued advisories warning people with lung conditions to stay indoors.

The Yankees, who train in Tampa, cut their workout by 45 minutes and went inside for conditioning drills. "When you're out here running and taking deep breaths, it can't be good for you," Yankees manager Joe Torre said.

Pinellas County schools were advised about 8 a.m. to keep children indoors.

In Polk County, attendance was down at some schools in the Auburndale and Polk City areas, because the smoke and fire kept some buses from traveling some roads. By late morning, however, the smoke cleared and so did most of the concerns.

Auburndale Elementary School principal Gay Martin said her biggest concern now is what happens Wednesday: Students are supposed to start taking the state's writing test, and schools are penalized if a low percentage of students show up.

Elsewhere around Tampa Bay, it was life as usual, if a bit gray.

In Hillsborough County, the smoky skies didn't stop parents and their children from enjoying a scheduled day off from school with picnic and play at Lake Park.

"It's a little irritating to the nose and eyes, but we hated to stay inside all day," said Tim Lay, who chucked a football with three boys enrolled in his Carrollwood Black Belt Academy.

Gina Rey worried about her 7-year-old son, Drew, who has asthma and allergies, but she decided to go ahead with a picnic with three friends and their 10 children at Lake Park in northern Hillsborough.

About an hour into their outing, Drew was still unbothered by the smoke. But the picnickers said their clothes were starting to smell smoky.

"When I went out side this morning, the sky was gray," said Rey, who lives in Tampa. "I thought my contacts had fogged up. I was like, "Who in the heck is burning their fireplace today?' "

And what's a little smoke when there's golf? Area courses reported brisk business, as duffers took advantage of the long holiday weekend.

In Hillsborough County, the Environmental Protection Commission stopped short of issuing an advisory but recommended residents consider the smoke before playing or exercising outside.

Tampa resident Mary Hutchens went jogging with a friend along Bayshore Boulevard on Monday, but she had reservations.

"We wondered about running, if it would be unhealthy," she said. But as they wended their way along Tampa Bay, the breeze picked up and scattered the smokey haze.

By 11 o'clock, the sky was blue.

"We feel fine," Hutchens said, walking south on Bayshore, "but our noses were kind of tingly."

The Pasco County Health Department issued its advisory about the time residents were lining the streets of Dade City for the Pasco County Fair's opening day parade. The crowd was dotted with retirees covering their mouths with handkerchiefs, and children who didn't seem to mind the smoke.

"It's more of a nuisance than anything," said Dade City Fire Rescue Capt. Joey Wubbenacq.

But it was a hinderance to some people working outside.

"It's hard on my breathing," said John Greene, a Dade City Parks Department employee tending trees in the city cemetery. "My nose is stopped up. My eyes are red. I'll be glad when 3:30 comes."

- Times staff writers Logan Mabe, Melanie Ave, Susan Thurston, Brady Dennis, Stephen Hegarty and Kathryn Wexler contributed to this report, which used information from the Associated Press.

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