Mexican haze burning eyes of Texas Smoke of forest fires drifts across border


SAN ANTONIO -- It was a couple of days ago that Patti Gunter inhaled the fresh air and reveled in the blue, blue skies overhead. This, she thought, is how she describes her beloved San Antonio when she brags to the less fortunate who live elsewhere.

The only problem was that those blue skies belonged to Denver, where Gunter was on a business trip.

Back home yesterday, she was once again deep in the haze of Texas.

For three dreary weeks, a murky shroud of smoke and soot from more than 200 fires in Mexico has settled over the state, broken occasionally by a shift in the wind or a smattering of rain.

"On the worst days, it's been almost brown. You can smell the smoke," says Gunter, a sales manager for an assisted-living center here. "You have to understand, living here, we're used to wonderful things."

Yesterday, skies cleared a bit for the second day in a row as winds shifted to the west, leading state environmental officials to cancel a health alert as of midnight last night. The alert, warning those with respiratory problems to avoid outdoor activities, was issued two weeks ago. But officials said that, like weather forecasters, they can't predict whether more smoke will drift into Texas and other Gulf of Mexico states in the future.

The United States has sent fire experts and equipment to Mexico to help fight the blazes, but a lingering drought has prevented the normal spring rains that would help extinguish the fires there and wash away their smoke here.

The haze has drifted as far north as Canada. (Gunter, in Kansas City on her recent business trip, asked local residents whether their haze was just a haze or The Haze. Even in the Midwest, a hazy day prompted speculation that it might be related to the Mexico fires.)

But Texas, as Mexico's most intimate neighbor, has borne the brunt. And throughout the vast state, the haze has been burning eyes, scratching throats and raising concerns of safety.

"I feel like there's a burning cigarette in my lungs," said Peggy Mulloy, a publicist visiting Austin on business from that crystal-air capital, Los Angeles.

"I'm a former smoker, so I know what that feels like. People have been saying, 'Oh, it's like L.A. here.' Let me tell you, it's nothing like this in L.A. It's worse here."

The haze has been "freaking us out a little bit," said Elizabeth Avellan, a movie producer who lives outside Austin. Avellan and her husband, director Robert Rodriguez, are filming their latest movie, a sci-fi thriller called "The Faculty," in various Texas locations with such stars as Bebe Neuwirth, Salma Hayek and Elijah Wood, and confronting some unusual haze-induced problems.

"The other day, we were filming outdoors and a shadow figures into the story. We just couldn't get one. The sun wasn't getting through the haze," Avellan said. "We actually had to put up lights to get harsher shadows."

The effects of the haze vary day by day, region by region.

Joe Rodriguez, an avid golfer who lives in San Antonio, continues to play several times a week to no ill effects. But Sunday he played in a tournament north of Austin and felt a little nauseated later.

He, like other Texans, finds a silver lining to this particular cloud. "The haze," Rodriguez says, "at least protects you from the sun beating down on you."

But also like many others, Rodriguez says he's becoming increasingly confused by all the weather and environmental phenomena he has been hearing about lately.

"First we had El Nino. Now we have the haze," said Rodriguez. "And the ozone -- they say we're not supposed to cut the grass because of the ozone."

Some environmentalists say it's all related: El Nino has produced atmospheric changes that have altered the usual weather patterns, meaning some areas of the world experience more rain or wind than they normally would and others experience less.

They also warn that severe weather -- such as the drought that has exacerbated the haze situation -- could be related to global warming.

State officials say the haze is here just as Texas is entering the season, summer, when ozone tends to be a problem in some cities, adding an extra irritant.

Pulmonary specialists say they've been busy as a result.

"My patients with asthma, chronic bronchitis and emphysema have been coming in," said Dr. Ernesto Bondarevsky. "They're having respiratory problems, more shortness of breath, more coughing, and miscellaneous complaints like feeling more weak

and tired.

"Any kind of air pollution will do this to them. I try to advise them not to do strenuous exercise and stay in an air-conditioned place."

The haze "doesn't pose health risks for healthy people," said Pat Shaughnessy, a spokesman for the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission, the state's environmental agency.

Some doctors and environmentalists, though, say inhaling soot particles can't be benign. The amount of particles in the air has occasionally reached dangerous levels in parts of Texas over the past three weeks.

In Brownsville, at the southern tip of Texas on the Mexican border, the particulate level exceeded 250 micrograms per cubic meter of air one day. The Environmental Protection Agency's health standard calls for no more than 65 micrograms per cubic meter over a 24-hour period. By yesterday, the level in Brownsville was down to 37 micrograms.

Without a good prediction of how much longer haze will be a part of their lives, Texans have been altering what they can and dealing with what they can't.

Some schools have opted to keep children indoors during recess on the worst days, or move outdoor physical education classes inside. Golf courses say fewer elderly players are showing up on the links or playing fewer holes.

Parks and sports fields, though, seem as lively as they do every spring, even here where spring can mean 90-degree days. The Town and Country Little League in San Antonio is plugging along with its season, although some games have been canceled because not enough players have shown up.

"Another forfeit?" Richard Sanders asked his son, Curtis, as he unexpectedly showed up at field's concession stand one night this week. Curtis, 14, nodded; he was supposed to umpire a game, but fewer than the required nine players per team turned up.

"It's the parents. The kids will play in anything," Sanders said.

A landscaper, Sanders says the haze hasn't disrupted his business or his Little League coaching too much. "It's burning my eyes a little," his wife, Cindy, said, "but I've been trying to ignore it."

Over in the cool of the tree-shaded and river-sliced Brackenridge Park, some 35 runners were similarly ignoring the haze during their usual Wednesday night "Zoo Run," a two-mile race to benefit the zoo. But, slick with sweat, these were the die-hards: Pre-haze, 50 or more runners would show up for the weekly race.

Sally Rios, 49, finished the run, feeling better than she had during the worst of the haze.

"I had been having some sinus problems, and then the smoke got back, but I ran in it anyway and started having more problems," she said. "It felt like I couldn't get enough oxygen."

Rios said she's been living for those rare days when a patch of blue sky will break through the haze.

"I have this little plant in a window in my office, and I saw this bud on it that wouldn't open for the longest time," said Rios, secretary to a dean at San Antonio College. "The other day, the one when the sun was actually out, I noticed it actually blossomed at last."

Although the haze appears to be lessening, for now, concerns remain about this and other environmental issues.

"People move to places like Austin because of the quality of life," said Avellan, the movie producer. "I think once the smoke clears -- to say something funny -- people are going to be a lot more interested in what goes on in Mexico. The world has become smaller and smaller. This is the year that has taught us that."

"Initially, the haze caught everyone off guard," said Ramon Alvarez, a staff scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund in Austin. "There are some real lessons that can be learned from this.

"What it argues for is better preparedness in the future that would allow us to move in more quickly rather than the two weeks it took for the U.S. to mobilize and send help to Mexico.

"It really shows, the environment is not a local issue," he said. "For a lot of people, this haze makes pollution issues real."

Pub Date: 5/29/98

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