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Olympics in Beijing: Air Quality Woes

Athletes and Spectators Worry About Health Impact of Beijing's Air Pollution
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Beijing's Efforts to Improve the Air

Beijing Olympic officials have taken steps to try to improve air quality during the games: traffic will be very limited and construction will halt.

Still, Alfred Munzer, MD, director of pulmonary medicine at Washington Adventist Hospital and former president of the American Lung Association, says that shutting down factories and enforcing driving bans won't eliminate what's already in the air.

"During exercise, the movement of air in the lungs goes up about tenfold, which means exposure to air pollution goes up tenfold," Munzer says. "This has a severe affect on the respiratory tract. It will have an effect on healthy athletes."

Scheduling may help some Olympic athletes. The coolest time of the morning offers the most ideal conditions for competition, followed by early evening once the sun sets.

Unfortunately, there's little else athletes -- or even spectators -- can do to prevent exposure to air pollution.

"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."

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