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Hold your breath 

Despite a decade of fighting pollution, Atlanta's air quality is about to get severe

"I start wheezing a lot, and it feels like a house fell on my chest. Then I start to cough." The coughing can last for so long that 9-year-old Lauren Johnson's chest muscles become sore and achy. Lauren lies in a bed on the second floor in the Children's Healthcare of Atlanta hospital. She's been there since Monday, July 22. That's when she started wheezing. Her doctor says at the time that her hospital stay might stretch to a week.It's the second time this summer Lauren's been admitted to the hospital for an asthma attack. Her treatment includes steroids and bronchial dilators, which open up airways that become inflamed because of the ozone smog that envelops Atlanta and the surrounding area through much of the summer.

Lauren's mother, Cindy Johnson, didn't pay much attention to Atlanta's air quality until Lauren began having problems breathing, when she was 2. Now, Johnson watches the news every night to see how bad the air will get the next day.

"On some days, her grandma will call, and neighbors will call, when they see that there's going to be a bad smog day," Johnson says. Lauren absolutely has to stay inside on those kinds of days. Lots of kids do.

Atlanta's air problems send thousands of asthmatics, senior citizens, and anyone sensitive to respiratory problems, to emergency rooms and allergy clinics every year. Sometimes, scientists say, Atlanta's air actually kills people.

City, state and federal brains have been trying to fix the metro area's air pollution for more than a decade. But the best claim they can make is that air quality hasn't gotten worse.

And, now, even as more evidence mounts about the human toll of Atlanta's smog, the sheer complexity of the solutions makes it difficult to see how the air will get healthy anytime soon. In one likely scenario, an intended solution could even make the air worse.

Lauren thinks it would be a good idea just to put a plug on the exhaust pipes of every car and truck around here -- something the agencies dealing with air pollution would probably love to do, sort of.

Lauren and Cindy Johnson live in Monticello, which is southeast of Covington. On days when the air wafting over from Atlanta isn't too bad, Lauren likes to go swimming at her friend's house. She's been swimming a lot less this summer.

When a hospital administrator tells her, "Well, maybe the hospital should get a pool," Lauren's eyes double in size, she turns her head around to face her mother and speaks for the first time above a strained whisper. "Oh cool!" Then, the exertion sets off a coughing spell fitting for a lifelong chain smoker than a child of 9.

Lauren is one of three patients of Dr. LeRoy Graham at the Children's Healthcare of Atlanta.

"I'd say on the worst day, there are at least a dozen, sometimes a couple dozen more kids that are brought in because of problems, easily," Graham says.

Graham treats asthma attacks triggered by air pollution the same as he does any asthma attack. But over the last few years, he's become more upfront about telling his patients how to avoid attacks in the summer.

"We're giving patients fairly direct advice of what to avoid, and basically we're telling people not to go outdoors, and that's pretty bad," he says.

Graham's constant interaction with kids suffering because of Atlanta's air pollution has emboldened him to move beyond his role as a pediatric pulmonologist. He's an outspoken critic of developers; he's not afraid to say that politicians could be doing far more to get cars off the roads.

"Our political leadership is irresponsible in respect to air pollution," Graham says. "There's a wealth of scientific evidence saying that in a metropolis such as Atlanta we need to have transportation alternatives.

"We cannot let people continue development without the supporting infrastructure, and by that, I mean not just the roads leading into your subdivision but the ability to have feeder routes into MARTA, to have light rail, to have things like that. In my opinion, basically there's a lot of big money to be made in Atlanta, and money makes you forget about a lot of stuff. We can solve big problems; we can dig a hole and build a bigger sewer in a heartbeat if it means more development. Well, why can't we have that same kind of motivation to come up with transit solutions?"

The acronyms of the agencies that help fight Atlanta's battle against dirty air could fill a bowl of alphabet soup.They include the Atlanta Regional Commission, the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority, the Georgia Department of Transportation, the Georgia Environmental Protection Division and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

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