Have you ever wondered what to make of those air quality warnings you hear on the news? These warnings are intended to help you take action to avoid harmful air, but it is not always clear what they really mean and what actions are reasonable and necessary. Here is a brief history of the system behind the Air Quality Index (AQI), and education regarding how these warnings can help you breathe better.
The AQI was developed by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1968. It measures the levels of 5 major air pollutants regulated by the Clean Air Act: particle pollution, ground-level ozone, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide. Of these, ozone and particle pollution pose the greatest risk to your health.
The AQI is a number from 0-500 for each of these pollutants, and anything below 50 is considered good. From 50-100 only very sensitive people will be affected. Above 100 more people will begin to experience problems, especially people with allergies, asthma, COPD, heart disease, the elderly, and children. Above 150 even healthy people might begin to have problems.
Health effects of air pollution include irritation of the nose, throat, and lungs, worsening asthma, increased susceptibility to respiratory infections, and even long term damage to these areas if the exposure is high and prolonged.
So what action should you take when the AQI is elevated? The first step is to build awareness of how your own body reacts to air pollution, by keeping track of air quality (www.airnow.gov or the AIRNow app), and seeing what symptoms you experience. You may find you need to take precautions in the Yellow or Orange range. Everybody should take precautions once levels are in the Red range or worse. Precautions include avoiding exercising outdoors when AQI is poor, and limiting your children’s outdoor play. Go to the gym or walk at the mall instead of jogging outdoors. Use the air conditioner in your home and auto to help filter the air. If you have asthma or allergies you may need to take extra precautions. Discuss this with your Allergy Partners physician and make a plan to maintain optimal health.