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'Code Red' Smog Alert Grips Area

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It will be harder to breathe in metro Atlanta today.

This is the first "Code Red" smog alert of the year, forecast for the state by a team of scientists. Tailpipe and smokestack pollutants, cooked in the sun's heat, could create enough ground-level ozone --- or smog --- to hurt people's lungs.

Children and the elderly, and anyone with asthma or another lung disease, are most at risk. But even healthy young adults could find themselves short of breath or coughing in the thick air.

The worst time to be outside today is between 3 and 7 p.m., the evening rush hour, when ozone levels hit their peak.

With thousands of runners training for the Peachtree Road Race on July 4, doctors and state environmental officials suggest those who exercise outside to do it in the morning or late at night, and avoid busy roads blanketed with exhaust.

"Even people standing on the back porch grilling dinner need to be aware that the ozone levels may be high enough to harm their breathing," said Dr. Howard Frumkin of Emory University's Rollins School of Public Health. He helped devise the state's smog alert health advisories.

Based on past high-ozone days, emergency room visits and calls in to cardiopulmonary doctors can be expected to increase today. Camp counselors and day care workers should be especially watchful of their charges, looking for signs of coughing or shortness of breath, Frumkin said.

Anyone who experiences those symptoms should stop exercising or go inside where ozone levels are lower.

Metro Atlanta has been in a bad-air rut since Monday. On Tuesday, the region failed the federal Clean Air test for the first time this year. Monitors in Gwinnett County and Tucker measured ozone above the federally allowed levels, dimming the region's prospects for cleaner air anytime soon.

The Clean Air Campaign, a nonprofit agency, says commuters could improve today's forecast by leaving their cars at home.

The problem is that most metro Atlantans feel trapped in their solo-driving schedules. Public transportation is viewed as inconvenient, and people often live far from where they work.

Linda Jo Ayers, for example, said she'd ride a bus for her 11-mile commute between her residence in Smyrna and office in Midtown, but said it would take too long.

"By the time I get [to a bus stop], heck, I could have already made it to work," said Ayers, an executive assistant for a data systems company.

Environmentalists blame the state for not doing more to force companies and vehicles to reduce pollution.

They criticize a decision by the Board of Natural Resources to soften until September a mandate for cleaner gasoline to be sold in 45 North Georgia counties. The board responded to providers who said the cleaner fuel could be in short supply and costly.

State officials say they are taking the right steps to clean up metro Atlanta's air, including requirements that wound up costing Georgia Power $800 million to install pollution controls at seven plants ringing the region.

They predict the region could meet it's first Clean Air standard next year.

--- Staff writer Duane Stanford contributed to this article.

Copyright 2003 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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