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Flagging bad air days
The Central Valley receives high marks from school personnel, parents and students for its innovative air quality flags program that alerts area residents to risky air conditions. Yet three years after its debut in 2005, approximately 85 or 35 percent of the 245 schools within Stanislaus County do not participate in this free program.

"This is a great program," said Jay Simmonds, spokesperson for the Ceres Unified School District, which flies the colored flags in all 18 elementary, middle, and high schools within its district. "This is a great way to let people in the schools and in the community know about the quality of air each day, so they can plan their activities accordingly."

Each morning, school district personnel raise a colored flag at 160 participating Stanislaus county schools to signal how healthy the air is that day: Green for "good," yellow for "moderate," orange for "unhealthy for sensitive people," and red for "unhealthy for everyone."

School personnel limit, or sometimes even cancel outdoor activities on poor air quality days, generally following typical rainy day scheduling procedures. Instead, schools may provide alternative indoor activities to protect students and employees from polluted outdoor air.

The flag colors correspond to the colors of the Air Quality Index of the eight-county San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, which provides the daily air quality forecast to participating schools and area residents.

"Our facilities people raise the air quality flags right along with the U.S. and California flags each morning," said Simmonds. "We typically take them down late in the day, when our after-school activities are over."

The air quality flags are provided free from area nonprofit groups. The Stanislaus Asthma Coalition provides free sets of flags for schools within Stanislaus County. The American Lung Association of California provides air quality flags for schools and businesses in San Joaquin, Madera, Fresno, Kings, and Kern counties.

"The flags program is one of the best ways we know to notify and protect the public from poor air quality," said Anthony Presto, spokesperson for the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District northern region, which includes Stanislaus County.

Particulate matter and ozone are air pollutants that can constrict breathing passages, forcing the body to work harder to get oxygen. These pollutants can cause other health problems as well, such as aggravated respiratory disease, lung damage, wheezing, dry throat, headache, nausea, increased fatigue, weakened athletic performance and more.

California's rash of wildfires in recent weeks has increased air pollution in and around the Valley, causing significant health problems for area residents. The fires have also rekindled interest in the schools air quality flags programs for community residents who pass by the schools.

"When I go by schools with air quality flags, I make a mental note about the air and my activities for the day," said John Sims, Turlock Unified School District president. "I think this is a pretty handy way to readily communicate important information, placed right in the front for all to see."

However, Turlock Unified School District is one of seven districts in the county not participating in the air quality flags program, according to the Stanislaus Asthma Coalition which coordinates the program.

Others school districts not participating in the air quality flags program includes: Denair Unified School District, Chatom Union School District, Hickman School District, Hughson Unified School District, Keyes Union School District, and Riverbank Unified School District. Sierra View Elementary is the only participating school in the Oakdale Joint Union School District.

The San Joaquin Air Pollution Control District provides the air quality forecast on its Web site at 4:30 p.m. for the following day.

Instead of using the flag system, Roger Smith, Facilities Manager and Safety Coordinator for the Turlock Unified Schools District, provides air quality information by e-mail to designated personnel at each school site within its district. These site designees relay the information to faculty, staff and students within each of Turlock's 17 schools. Activities at each site are modified according to the information provided by Smith.

Smith explained the process in which he extrapolates data regarding current conditions and readings posted on the San Joaquin Air Pollution Control Web site.

"If it's a green day, there's no advisory and everything is assumed to be clear and fine," said Smith. "But for other readings indicating poor air quality, especially orange or red, there's a tremendous difference in the Air Pollution Control District's monitors that are located close to each other."

A 2 p.m. reading on July 8 of the air quality index on, indicated an air quality index of 83 for Modesto, 143 for Turlock, and 82 for Merced.

Anthony Presto acknowledged the variations in air quality readings by proximate locations, but said that the site monitors were just one of several data sources used to develop the daily air quality forecasts.

"Population, geography, industrial air pollutants, wind patterns-there's a lot of information we take into account in developing our forecasts," said Presto. "We have specialized staff, actually they're called 'atmospheric scientists' that work on developing the forecast."