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Olympics in Beijing: Air Quality Woes

Athletes and Spectators Worry About Health Impact of Beijing's Air Pollution

Beijing's Efforts to Improve the Air continued...

"You can't protect yourself with a mask," Munzer says. "We're talking about a fine gas, so there's no really good protection."

There are other health concerns for the Olympic athletes, as well.

AIRescue International is a California-based critical care evacuation service that assesses potential emergency medical situations for corporate clients. Medical director Francine Vogler, MD, recently traveled to Beijing to complete a survey for a client who will be welcoming guests to the 2008 games.

In addition to smog and pollution, Vogler says the water she was served in restaurants had to be piping hot due to quality concerns. Food probably won't be an issue for most athletes, who will be eating at their teams' commissaries that serve food native to their country.

The area's emergency service is also far different than Westerners are accustomed to receiving, she says, noting that some ambulances contained nothing more than a stretcher.

These shouldn't be concerns for athletes, who will have trainers and top medical resources at their disposal. But spectators in attendance -- especially those with pre-existing medical conditions -- should assess their own risks as well.

"Athletes who have asthma will be well prepared, but visitors will not have the same preparation," Vogler says. "The outdoor environment is challenging not only because of the pollution, but the heat and high humidity."

The weather, in fact, is troubling some Olympic athletes far more than Beijing's air quality. Lanier compares Beijing's climate to New Orleans in the summer -- oppressive heat and thick, smothering humidity.

Former gold medalist Jeanette Bolden, who is head coach of the U.S. Women's Track and Field team, says any of Beijing's air quality issues will pale in comparison to the climate challenges. "They're doing all they can to make sure pollution will not be a problem," says Bolden, who has asthma. "The heat, humidity, and dehydration will be more of a problem."

Carrie Johnson, a 24-year-old Olympic kayaker from San Diego, recently competed in an event in Shunyi, China. She didn't notice any negative effect from breathing the local air. Her training is occupying her focus far more than Beijing's environmental conditions. "As an athlete, the only thing I can concern myself with is the training and preparation."

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