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NIH Record

Bad Air Days
NIH Crafts Response to Summer Smog Alerts

NIH'ers can now do more than bellyache and suffer when the triple H's -- hazy, hot and humid weather -- settle in over Bethesda in the summertime. When the newscaster announces a code red or orange day -- a scorcher when the ozone levels are high -- NIH employs its ozone action days plan, which encourages voluntary actions to reduce emissions, and thereby minimize health risks to employees and the community.

On an alert day, NIH grounds maintenance staff will display flags on several sites to specify the alert, and the Division of Computer Research and Technology will place a message on NIH email to inform all employees. If there is a code red, employees will be encouraged to take advantage of free rides aboard Montgomery County "Ride-On" buses during the 6-9 a.m. commute. Contractors and logistics staff will try to refuel vehicles in the morning and evening hours. Delivery truck drivers will be asked not to idle engines at loading docks, and the day care program will be informed so that outdoor activities for kids can be scheduled in the morning. The Fitness Center has agreed to post a banner so that walkers and runners can plan to exercise in the morning or evening when the air is not so congested.

Briefly, ozone is an invisible gas formed when volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides "cook" in hot sunlight. The primary sources of these chemicals are cars, small gas engines (lawnmowers, for example), power plants and consumer products such as paint and household cleaners. Ozone can lower resistance to colds and pneumonia, damage lung tissue, worsen asthma attacks, intensify heart and lung disease, and cause coughing and throat irritation. Studies have shown that its unhealthful effects may continue for days after exposure has ended.

The NIH ozone action plan is triggered by receipt of a faxed forecast from the Metropolitan Council of Governments predicting that the following day will be an ozone action day. The fax arrives in NIH's Office of Community Liaison, which in turn notifies plan participants at NIH. Among the responses: OMS health units will distribute ozone action information, and will schedule waste disposal shipments around code red/orange days where possible; R&W stores and fitness centers will post ozone awareness information, including warning flags and flyers; R&W-sponsored outdoor sports teams will be alerted (for example, golf, tennis, softball, running); grounds maintenance workers here will curtail use of small gasoline engine equipment, and cut use of pesticides; the NIH power plant, which is already taking steps to renovate and modernize all boilers to reduce emissions of nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide, will use lighter fuel oils and natural gas in its power boilers on alert days. It will also switch all plant auxiliaries to electric drive to reduce steam demand and lower boiler output.

This series of voluntary responses to ozone alerts was initiated by Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening last year, when the region experienced only one code red day all summer. As of July 21, there had already been 11 code red days in the metro area. NIH is among the first federal agencies to participate in the ozone action days plan, said Janyce Hedetniemi, director of the Office of Community Liaison.

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