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Wildfire smoke irritates throats, eyes and nerves

By Desiree Hunter
Associated Press Writer

MONTGOMERY — Rain or shine, Shirley Davis exercises five to six times a week, usually walking at least four laps around Montgomery's Vaughn Road Park. Despite being asthmatic, she thought weather would never interrupt her routine — until a day last week when smoke from wildfires burning in Georgia and Florida became too much.

"That particular morning it was real bad, it was real thick," Davis said as she made her way around the park's track Friday afternoon. "I came out, but I didn't stay. That's happened once or twice because it was just too bad."

Lingering smoke from the fires — which first rolled into the state May 14 — has been forcing Alabamians like Davis to make changes to their routines, such as working out later in the day, and prompting others to stay indoors.

Angela Brush, executive director of the American Lung Association of Alabama, said her office has been receiving calls from people worried about the health affects of the smoke and the advice is simple: where there's smoke, stay inside.

Brush said children under 10 and adults over age 65 are the most vulnerable to the smoky conditions. And those who have respiratory problems, like her asthmatic 5-year-old daughter, are even more susceptible, she said.

"I told her baby sitter not to even let her outside," said Brush, who along with her Birmingham co-workers has been bringing her lunch to avoid leaving the office during the day.

"Children do need to play around outside, but at this point in time, we just can't do anything about it," she said.

Dr. Hugh Frazer Jr., an allergist for Montgomery Allergy and Asthma Associates, said he's recently had more patients coming in with complaints of increased coughing, sneezing, wheezing and shortness of breath — and they're blaming it on the smoke.

"For people who have (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), those are the ones who are getting into more trouble with it," he said. "The slightest little provocation will cause them to have increased symptoms."

Frazer said most seemed to have been "putting up with the smoke" for the past few weeks, but are coming in now that the haze has been hanging around.

Patients have told him they're changing their air conditioners to use recycled air instead of drawing it in from outside and they're trying to drive less, he said.

Flor Ramirez, 16, laughed as she pushed her three young nieces on swings at the Montgomery park Friday, their first outing to the playground since the girls — ages 6, 3, and 2 — suffered itchy eyes, sore throats, coughs and runny noses from the smoke last week, she said.

"Around 6 a.m. you can smell it soooo bad," said Ramirez, who said the girls' daily outside playtime was shortened to about 15 minutes in the afternoon during smoky days. "I even told one of my friends it smells like Mexico City because Mexico City always smells like a lot of smoke from all the cars, buses and factories."

The high school student, who is baby-sitting this summer, said the smoke hasn't affected her throat or eyes, but she's irritated with the smell.

"I used to take only one shower in the morning when I get up," she said. "But now I have to have another one because my clothes or hair smell like smoke and I don't go outside in the morning a lot."

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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