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Air quality index: What should you do when air quality is poor in your area?



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Air pollution is more common in large cities but can happen anywhere.

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When fires destroy the west coast of the United States from the state of Washington to southern California, millions of people are affected by poor air quality in these regions and across the country, even as far away as Michigan. Smoke and other particles create gray (and even Orange) and can cause health problems, ranging from breathing difficulties to respiratory infections. So what should you do if the fires affect the air quality where you are?

You know that pollutants are harmful to your health and clean air is important. But sometimes you can feel powerless when it comes to living in an area with pollution, because you can not just hide inside with your air purifier forever.

Thankfully, a resource called the Air Quality Index (AQI) was created by the US Environmental Protection Agency to monitor air quality so you can understand the impact it can have on your health.

What is AQI?

AQI reports on how clean or polluted the air in your area is and what effects breathing outdoor air can have on your health. The AQI forecast is available in 400 US cities, and you can see regional maps assessing air quality in the US and Canada. The index is on a scale from 0 to 500 (0 is clean air and 500 is heavy pollution). Outside the United States, you can check the World Air Quality Index for worldwide air pollution classifications.

AQI takes into account five of the most important air pollutants that are regulated under the Clean Air Act. These pollutants are ground-level ozone, particulate pollutants, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide.

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The air quality index scale classifies air quality on a scale from 0 to 500, with 0 being the cleanest to 500 being the most dangerous.

Screenshot of Mercey Livingston / CNET

What each AQI category means:

  • Good (green): 0-50 AQI means that there is little or no health risk associated with air quality.
  • Moderate (yellow): 51-100 AQI indicates acceptable air quality, but some people who are sensitive to pollutants or experience breathing problems may experience adverse effects, depending on the type of pollutants in the air.
  • Unhealthy for sensitive groups (orange): 101-150 means that there is a health risk for children, older adults and people with heart disease and lung disease. The general healthy population is unlikely to experience health risks.
  • Unhealthy (red): 151-200 AQI is considered unsafe and anyone may experience adverse health effects from air pollutants.
  • Very unhealthy (purple): 201-300 AQI is a serious health risk for all and you may see a health warning on your phone or weather app.
  • Dangerous (reddish brown): 300 or higher AQI is considered dangerous and it is likely that an emergency or evacuation warning would be issued.

What to do if air quality is poor in your area

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A face mask can protect you from air pollution, as long as it is the right mask.

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If the air quality in your area is compromised, there are several things you can do to protect yourself. Particular attention should be paid to those who have endangered respiratory, lung or heart health, as well as children and older adults who are generally more vulnerable.

If air quality is unhealthy (101-150), the AQI website recommends that people who are sensitive to pollutants (ie people with lung disease, asthma, children, older adults and outdoor workers) reduce or limit the time they work or do activities outside. If the air quality is in a more moderate range (51-100), you can still protect yourself by reducing the time you spend outdoors if you are worried that you are sensitive to pollution levels.

If the air quality falls within the unhealthy or red area (151-200), AQI recommends that people with reduced health avoid long-term outdoor work or activity. Everyone else who is not affected by health should limit the time they spend outdoors.

If the air quality is in a very unhealthy or dangerous area, chances are that an emergency warning will be sent by the media, weather apps and more. If so, everyone should avoid going out and being exposed to air as much as possible. People with poor health should not go out at all to protect themselves.

If you are worried about the air quality around you, it may help to wear a face mask when exposed to the compromised air. Make sure your mask is rated as N95 and fits snugly over your nose and mouth. Surgical masks, medical masks and bandanas tied over your sound and mouth are not designed to filter out harmful air pollutants and do not protect you.






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The information in this article is intended for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified healthcare provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health goal.


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