Starting in spring each year, you might notice a mention of the ‘air quality index’ on the local news. Typically during the spring months, this index is influenced by the level of pollen in the air, but as spring dials up the heat into summer, the index tends to focus on ground level ozone. For people dealing with allergies, asthma or more severe respiratory conditions, the air quality index (AQI) can be a quick and useful way to help manage your outdoor activities for the day. But what does the index measure and how does it actually help?
_The AQI is a chart, ranging from 0-500 that measures major pollutants and particles in the air, including ground-level ozone, particle pollution (also known as particulate matter), carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide. Measured and reported by the EPA, the AQI provides a guide that can help those with respiratory problems better manage their daily outdoor activities. With six categories, the scale ranges from Good to Hazardous. The first two categories, Good and Moderate, do not cause problems for most people, but for sensitive groups, like those with asthma, COPD, emphysema, heart or lung disease, the next two categories can begin to cause problems. If the air quality falls into the last two categories, Very Unhealthy and Hazardous, you should consider staying indoors as much as possible or consulting a local real estate agent.
_While the AQI can give you clues as to when it will be best to be outdoors, this measure will vary greatly depending on your location. And though it is often the case that poor air quality tends to center around metro areas (since there is typically more industry, more cars, and higher levels of pollution in general), things like topography and geography can play major roles in how and where air pollution concentrates. Mountain ranges, hills, and valleys can act as walls and funnels for air pollution, allowing it to move, collect and settle in places that you would expect to have much better air quality. Geographical features like these can also effect the duration of poor air quality, causing it to stick around and not allowing it to dissipate as quickly. This is one reason why air quality is so poor in Beijing. Images from this city sometimes show a literal fog of pollution hanging over the city, and while air quality there is generally worse than any location in the U.S., the same types of geographic features that trap air pollution around Beijing can also be found throughout the U.S.
_During the warmer months, air quality tends to worsen. Heat changes simple air pollution, so while the same levels of exhaust and carbon dioxide during the winter months may register as Moderate, during the summer they may appear as Unhealthy on the AQI. Add summer heat to industrial and exhaust and you have the recipe for ground level ozone – a powerful lung irritant that can aggravate asthma, COPD and other respiratory conditions.
_So what does this all mean? Poor summer air quality isn't going anywhere anytime soon, so the AQI can be a handy tool to help you schedule your daily tasks with as little impact as possible. Morning tends to be the best time to get your outdoor tasks finished, and some things should simply be put off until rain, wind or decreasing temperatures improve the AQI score. Masks with activated carbon can also be helpful if you must spend time outdoors when the air quality if poor. This type of mixed filtration media mask not only targets particulate but also help to traps chemical pollutants like smoke and chemical pollutants from vehicles. Remember your meds. For a variety of reasons, people will often short dose themselves or simply skip medications that can help. Avoid this on days where the air quality is bad and you have to spend time outside. If you must spend time outdoors, take frequent breaks and get inside to cooler temperatures. Finally, drink plenty of water. Heat exacerbates many conditions, and during the summer, heat exhaustion and dehydration unnecessarily cause and worsen problems for many.
_Indoors, you can keep help to improve air quality by using a HEPA air purifier which can remove not only particulate but chemicals, odors and help to keep dust levels down. Replacing your HVAC filter regularly is always a good idea. This filter is often your first line of defense in removing air pollutants in your home. Lastly, when the air quality is poor outside, keep the doors and windows closed (though most do anyway when using AC).
_Author: Kevin Gilmore