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How bad's the air? Look for the flags

A Charlotte clean-air group wants local schools and government buildings to fly color-coded warning flags when breath-stifling ozone soars.

Two children who suffer from asthma raised a Code Yellow flag Thursday at the Mecklenburg County Health Department, which has agreed to hoist the flags daily. Ozone, an irritating gas formed from motor-vehicle exhaust, can worsen asthma in children.

Connor Parke, 11, likes to play soccer. “Except when I have an asthma attack,” he said, “I have to stop and get my inhaler.”

“It's like I breathe shorter and shorter,” added 11-year-old Kayla Huntley. Kayla said her asthma is now under control, thanks to a healthy diet and exercise.

A survey two years ago found that Mecklenburg County emergency-room treatments for respiratory problems rise on bad-air days, said Dr. Stephen Keener, the health department's medical director.

The Carolinas Clean Air Coalition says 26 schools have agreed to fly the flags, expanding a campaign that began last year. The group hopes other government buildings and YMCAs will also agree to fly the flags.

The flags will reflect the daily ozone forecasts that the N.C. Division of Air Quality issues in spring and summer. They range from yellow, signaling moderate conditions, to orange, red and purple in a rising scale of potential health effects.

A new federal ozone standard took effect in March. That will make it tougher for Charlotte – which also violated the old standard – to comply. The Environmental Protection Agency's science advisory board, and clean-air advocates, had recommended an even tougher standard.

From May through September last year, the clean air coalition said, the Charlotte region broke the old standard on 25 days. Under the new standard, it would have logged 56 violations.

So far this year, the region has broken the new standard on 19 days.