Valley walkers brave heat, foul air to promote asthma awareness

10/01/2012 11:09 AM

10/02/2012 12:21 AM

Walkers facing unexpected October heat and warnings about air quality made their way from Turlock to Modesto to raise awareness about asthma in the valley.

The Central Valley Asthma Walk, which started in Fresno on Thursday, is sponsored by the SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West union. The group is winding its way up the valley and will finish Thursday in Sacramento.

Walkers had to deal with high temperatures as the mercury rose across the valley, peaking at 95 in Modesto. That is just shy of the record temperature for Oct. 1 of 98 degrees, according to the Modesto Irrigation District.

This week, the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District issued an air alert, warning that the heat could lead to unhealthy ozone levels.

"We didn't plan it, we didn't want it, but this is real life and we are trying to do something about it," said SEIU-UHW President Dave Regan about the air alert coinciding with the asthma awareness campaign.

No heat relief for walkers

The air quality warning started Saturday and runs until Wednesday. Anthony Presto with the valley air district said the hot, dry conditions coupled with other air contaminants can make conditions dangerous for the elderly and people with asthma, emphysema, bronchitis and other breathing ailments.

"Getting into October and having heat like this is not something we're used to," Presto said. "We normally get through September and breathe a sigh of relief. This is a bit of an unexpected occurrence."

Temperatures are expected to stay in the 90s through Wednesday. But hot weather could be sticking around even longer than expected. Drought conditions have worsened across California compared with a year ago and are expected to get worse through December.

The National Weather Service has declared a weak El Niño to be in play this winter. This means the tropical Pacific Ocean is warmer than normal, a cycle that typically alters climate patterns to produce dry conditions in Northern California and wet conditions in the south state.

Still, the October hear didn't deter those taking part in the Asthma Walk, including Waterford resident Martha Haro. The 47-year-old was among about 30 walkers who started in Fresno.

"Asthma impacted my father's life big time. I saw how hard it was on him," she said. "This has been an inspiration for me to do something. I don't have asthma, but I have allergies. And on this walk, my eyes were watering and sometimes it was hard to breathe."

Glen Enriquez, a respiratory therapist at Doctors Medical Center, also was taking part in the walk. He said valley patients are particularly prone to having problems.

"Because of pollen and pesticides and agriculture and pollutants, we have a higher ratio of asthma than the national average here," he said. "If people are aware of the problems, they can better avoid them."

The asthma walk ended for the day with an event at the Modesto Junior College East Campus quad. Booths with voter registration and health information were set up. There also was a poetry slam scheduled.

As part of the air alert, Presto said residents are encouraged to reduce their driving or idling in their cars and only use gas lawn mowers early in the morning. Those with asthma and breathing problems are encouraged to stay indoors.

Walk participants said that despite the conditions, it felt good to be a part of it.

"I feel like I'm important as a person doing this," said Phat Thammeuangkhun, who works at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Modesto and whose mother has asthma. "I'm excited to be part of this. It's important for my family and for my community. Everyone in the valley should be concerned about this."

Sacramento Bee reporter Matt Weiser contributed to this report.

Bee staff writer Marijke Rowland can be reached at (209) 578-2284.

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