A new term is showing up more and more in the media – And you might notice as you’re using your computer that this term is even appearing on your desktop near the weather report. But what does it mean, and what’s the number represent? The answers to these questions are important to maintaining good health and being aware of the potential healthcare conditions of your environment, and with the wildfires blazing in Canada over the duration of July, chances are you have heard the words “air quality index” a lot indeed. So what is it? How can we use it? Let’s start simple.
Air Quality Index is the measure of the density of five specific polluting factors. Those factors are ground ozone, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, and sulfur dioxide. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) established it as a way of telling Americans how clean their air is from day to day, so they can better make choices regarding their health and outdoor activities.
In July, parts of the country experienced an Air Quality Index of nearly 500, the year’s highest reading. Some states broke records. A level of pollution that thick can make it hazardous to step outside. However, even a more typical measure such as an Air Quality Index of around 100 can warn those with respiratory conditions or a vulnerable constitution to be careful.
How is it Read?
Because the index falls between a range from 0 to 500, it can be hard to understand exactly what you’re being told. The higher the number, the more pollution there is. A level of air pollution less than 100 is below the levels of pollution known to cause health defects. Once it crosses that threshold and reaches 101, the air is still safe for most people, but the elderly and children are at risk of developing health complications such as asthma attacks or an aggravated respiratory disease. A number above 200 is very unhealthy.
The index also categorizes scores into six differently colored sections, with green and yellow presenting the healthiest air conditions. Orange, red, purple, and especially maroon represent an increasing level of danger.
How Can I Stay Safe?
By being conscious of events that could potentially harm the air quality, such as wildfires or chemical events, you can know when to check the Air Quality Index in your area. When you notice the levels of pollution rising, close your windows and doors. If possible, run your air conditioner without stopping or using the auto cycle. Make sure to close any fresh air intake vents, so smoke doesn’t enter your home. Portable air cleaners can also remove particulate matter from the air inside your home, especially in smaller spaces.
You should also avoid frying foods or generating more smoke indoors by smoking or burning incense or fireplaces. If you must go outdoors, avoid strenuous activities like jogging or yard work. It’s important to get daily exercise, however this is only safe at an Air Quality Index of 150 or less. Face masks – Especially loose fabric covers – Will not filter out any particulate matter, and even an N95 respirator will not filter out carbon monoxide, so exercise extra caution in the presence of forest fire smoke.