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May is Asthma Awareness Month, and to help commemorate this occasion, a group of students today at The Environmental Charter School at Frick Park in Regent Square raised the first air quality flag in southwestern Pennsylvania. The event marked the launch of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s School Flag Program in our region in collaboration with Group Against Smog and Pollution (GASP).

 

The engaging, hands-on program uses brightly colored flags that correlate with the Air Quality Index (AQI) forecast to alert the community about levels of ground-level ozone or particle pollution in the air. Each morning, ECS students in the “GASP Club” with the help of environmental science teacher Laura Micco will now check the AQI forecast and raise the corresponding colored flag.

 

“It’s an example of children being able to take part in a community and being able to be advocates for something they believe in,” Micco says. “A lot of kids that go to the Environmental Charter School have spent their time learning about the impacts that people have, so this is a really great way for them to be able to help people understand the problems that they care about and do something about it at the same time.”

 

At today’s program launch, the ECS students cheered as they hoisted a green flag, which indicates satisfactory air quality that poses little health risk, according to EPA. Yellow signals moderate health concern, and orange means unhealthy for sensitive groups, such as children, the elderly and people with lung disease. A red flag announces unhealthy air for everyone, while a purple flag means the air quality is very poor and all outdoor activity should be avoided.

 

“Today, when students at the Environmental Charter School raised their first air quality flag, they also raised awareness about our region’s air conditions and how they are working to protect their health,” says Karrie Kressler, SCA Green Cities Fellow with GASP.

 

“Schools are an important setting for this type of awareness program as children are more susceptible to air pollution,” says Rachel Filippini, executive director of GASP. That’s because children breathe more air per pound of body weight than adults, their lungs and immune systems are still developing–and they tend to spend more time outdoors, Filippini explains.

 

The flags will help teachers and coaches know when to shorten outdoor exercise or to move activities indoors to keep students out of unhealthy air. By tracking their symptoms and correlating them to the flag colors, asthmatic students can determine their own sensitivities and tolerances to air pollution and take appropriate action to safeguard their health. In addition, the flags will serve as a public awareness tool to educate the broader community about ways to minimize their exposure to air pollution.

 

The problem is endemic. In the Pittsburgh area, there were 208 days of “yellow” air quality for particle pollution in 2012–that’s nearly 60 percent of the year spent at “moderate” air pollution levels on the AQI scale. Last year, there were also more than 30 days of “orange” air considered “unhealthy for sensitive groups.”

 

 

Filippini cautions that the Air Quality Index is a measure of regional pollution levels, so to make informed decisions, teachers and school administrators still must be aware of localized sources of pollution that might be affecting their air quality, such as idling buses or nearby construction sites. Also, many researchers warn that no threshold has been found below which air pollution poses zero risk. In fact, scientists continue to find poor health outcomes associated even with levels of air pollution measured on “green” days.

 

For some of the students at ECS, participation in the School Flag program is personal.

 

“A bunch of my friends have asthma, and I want my friends to have a better place so they don’t have to worry every day about breathing,” says GASP club member Miles Bennett, a fourth grade student at ECS.

 

The program at ECS will continue through the end of this school year and will start again in September 2013.

 

“The exciting part for me is that the flag is also a sign to the community that we are regional leaders in environmental education,” ECS upper school principal Stephen Pellathy says. “We want to grow the school into a community hub for environmental activity, and a flag like this is nice because people see it and it draws you in.”

 

Next school year, GASP plans to take the School Flag Program to more schools throughout the region. For more information, visit the EPA’s Flag Program website: airnow.gov/schoolflag, and to get your school involved, contact schoolflag@gasp-pgh.org.

 

Update: Here’s a link to a great blog post from SCA Green Cities Fellow Karrie Kressler, who is working with GASP to help launch the School Flag program.

 

“These days I think in colors,” Kressler writes. “Green, yellow, orange, red, purple. My nose can sniff out the most pleasant and unpleasant of smells. And I feel tuned-in to my lungs with every breath. It can be frustrating at times when you know all too well what’s in the air you’re breathing, but mostly, I like knowing. It gives me passion in my work with the SCA, and tools to talk to others.”

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