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Athletes Are Focus of Ozone Study, but We're Living in the Lab


SAN GABRIEL VALLEY — When Dr. Henry Gong, a UCLA lung expert, began to study the effects of smog on athletes several years ago, he put cyclists in an enclosed laboratory compartment and artificially pumped in ozone.

But somehow that didn't meet his needs for the true-grit effects of ozone, which is the chief component of smog and is caused when gases react with sunlight.

So, what better lab could there be, he reasoned, than one of the world's worst places for ozone pollution--the San Gabriel Valley?

With that, in cycling, jogging and sports journals he advertised his need for male subjects, ages 18 to 35, in a unique study overseen at the UCLA Environmental Exposure Laboratory and coordinated with a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lab in Chapel Hill, N.C.

San Gabriel Valley swimmers, runners, bikers--and some who do all three--are gradually responding to the ads, though Gong and his research associate, Arthur Lyness, are still scouting for more to join the one-year pilot effort.

Autopsy studies on young homicide and accident victims have suggested that living in the Southern California smog belt causes long-term lung damage.

In the 1980s, a study concluded that residents of Glendora, often billed as the U.S. ozone capital, experienced a faster decline in lung functioning than people who lived in Lancaster. And rats have been studied to determine how ozone might spur the development of cancer.

But, Gong said, there have been no comprehensive studies like the one he wants to undertake on athletes, whose lungs work overtime, and ozone.

"What we want to know is what happens in real life," he said. "We're looking at what's going on in the lung itself and what the cells are showing, which is really the bottom line."

The only drawback for his scientific purposes, he said, is that it's harder to control athletes than rats.

Regardless, he said, the study will have implications for public health, helping scientists to understand how lungs may or may not repair themselves in the face of repeated, intense exposure to ozone.

Among the long list of evil repercussions from ozone, it is known to cause lung damage, coughing spells, headaches and nausea and to impair athletic performance.

But Gong said there are still many things unknown about both ozone's short- and long-term effects and whether some athletes may be genetically fortunate to have bodies that resist harm from it.

Some volunteers for the $200,000 study, such as 29-year-old triathlete Ray Chavira of Hacienda Heights, say they simply want to satisfy their curiosity about whether exercising outdoors is making their lungs--in otherwise overly fit bodies--look like those of a coal miner or two-pack-a-day smoker.

"Hopefully, I'm OK and don't have accelerated aging on my lungs," said Chavira, whose 5-foot-11, 170-pound frame exudes health, even as he rocked back in his chair at the South Coast Air Quality Management District office in Diamond Bar, where he is an environmental chemist.

"But maybe what you're doing is cutting five years off your life," he said.

Chavira, who bikes 125 to 150 miles a week, runs 25 miles a week and swims 30 miles a week, became worried about his own health during the past winter.

The athlete, who can run a marathon in less than three hours, began to feel winded and felt pain in his chest during the winter, when the ozone is actually at its lowest, but other forms of air pollution, such as carbon monoxide, are still acutely high. "Either the pollution was getting worse or something was wrong with me," he said. "I just wanted to know what I was up against."

To participate in the study, he said, "is my way of fighting back." The study, he said, can be used as evidence of the need to reduce the use of Southern California's biggest smog culprit, the lone-occupant automobile.

"Smog really infringes on your freedom to work out any time you want," he said, walking toward office windows that provided a view of the eastern San Gabriel Valley as the afternoon smog rolled in around the green foothills.

"It's a war zone out there. I try to minimize my exposure. You don't want to be out there between noon and 4 in the afternoon," said Chavira, who bikes 22 miles to and from work three times a week.

To find out the actual impact on their lungs, though, the athletes have to undergo an uncomfortable medical procedure--a bronchoscopy--that involves the insertion into their lungs of a pencil-sized tube to extract lung cells.

Leo Milner, 36, a bike-riding chiropractor who lives in La Verne and has his office in Temple City, signed up for the study last fall and already has undergone two bronchoscopies.

He looks apprehensively to the procedure, he said, as he does to a trip to the dentist. "It's not painful. It's just . . . unpleasant. I wouldn't want to do it every day."

He tried to enlist fellow cyclists to participate in the name of environmental health. "But most of them are frightened away by the thought of the bronchoscopy."

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