Ozone can be toxic

Lexington Catholic High School's football team practiced in the gym Aug. 4 after coaches got a 110-degree reading on a heat index meter.
Lexington Catholic High School's football team practiced in the gym Aug. 4 after coaches got a 110-degree reading on a heat index meter.

At issue | Aug. 5 Herald-Leader article, "Too dangerous to be outdoors; Practices moved or canceled; heat sickens 6 Rowan players"

After a successful high school athletic career and graduation in 1961 from Paintsville High School, I attended the University of Kentucky on a football scholarship. After the first semester of my freshman year, Coach Blanton Collier was fired and Charlie Bradshaw was named his successor.

Then brutalizing, commando-style, total football began. I was introduced to win-at-all-costs, abusive football. Our team was never supplied drinking water during practice; not one drop. Players lost on average 20 pounds.

We were exercised to exhaustion during over-practice and we sustained physical assaults from the coaches. We were brainwashed to play football out of fear of our coaches, not for the love of the game. That was football then, coached by the disciples of Bear Bryant.

After graduating from the College of Medicine at the University of Kentucky, specializing in ophthalmology and practicing for 30 years, I retired and began researching and advocating safety in youth, primarily because of my Bradshaw experience. Also, sudden catastrophic youth athlete deaths became problematical.

We "old timers" were acclimated to hot weather 50 years ago. When kids, we played outside all day, because we had nothing else but sports activities to occupy our time. We had no computers, video games or central air conditioning. Air pollution was non-existent.

Now there are drastically different non-acclimated football athletes, drastically different weather conditions that include global warming and air pollution.

Youth football athletes are not acclimated to hot weather nowadays. They only go outside to practice football when the season begins. They often practice outside in dangerous heat combined with air pollution.

Ozone toxicity affects both human and plant life. Ozone on ground level is an air pollutant with harmful effects on human lungs and the entire respiratory system. On the other hand, the ozone layer in the upper atmosphere is beneficial, acting as a filter and preventing potentially damaging ultraviolet light from reaching the Earth's surface. Ground-level ozone peaks in the afternoon after sunlight cooks airborne nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds and sulphur dioxide, after air pollution has been emitted during the day.

"New statistics from the World Health Organization show that in the United States, air pollution annually kills nearly twice as many people as do traffic accidents and that deaths from air pollution equal deaths from breast cancer and prostate cancer combined," said Tiffany Schauer, executive director of Our Children's Earth Foundation.

Ozone can cause coughing and tightness in the chest. Football athletes retch and have difficulty breathing. Breaths might be more rapid and shallow, hallmark signs. Symptoms may last hours after exposure. Pre-existing asthma is aggravated, making asthmatics more sensitive to allergens that cause asthma attacks and can aggravate chronic lung diseases like bronchitis and infections.

The inflammation and damage to the epithelial cells lining the entire respiratory system and lungs can be silent and rapid for certain groups of football athletes. Often there is no warning. Football athletes initially might not manifest symptoms, but as ozone continues to cause lung damage, the athlete might suddenly collapse. Pulmonary damage can be irreversible in some football athletes.

Acute respiratory distress syndrome is the most serious result when oxygen cannot be exchanged with circulating pulmonary blood After oxygen deprivation, death is almost certain. Even steroids are ineffective.

Scientists are researching ozone's long-term effects. Youth football athletes repeatedly exposed to high levels of ozone may sustain lung damage, absent an acute attack. Studies suggest that ozone may also harm resistance to respiratory infections and later in life cause lung cancer.

Every coach must daily check the indexes for air quality index and heat on their field of play or practice. Coaches have a duty to protect children who are participating in sports activities. They are part of the chain of protective custody for our children.

An air quality index of 0-50 usually has no abnormal health effects. When the index is 51-100 football athletes with respiratory disease and asthma should not practice football outside. During dangerous heat, no one should practice outdoors with an air quality index greater than 100. Regardless of the temperature, youth football athletes should move indoors to practice and play when the index is 151 or higher.

Another serious precaution has been discovered and not widely reported. Don't allow diesel buses to idle near practice fields, while athletes are running gassers or wind sprints. That can create hot spot" of ozone in already hazardous heat and can push athletes' ozone toxicity over the edge.

Exercise to exhaustion in dangerous heat and ozone is a formula for youth football athlete death.