Have you ever gazed out the window on a particularly smoggy day and wondered if it’s safe enough to breathe? You may not realize it, but there is any easy way to determine the safety of the air outside on a daily basis—it’s called the Air Quality Index, or AQI. Perhaps you’ve seen this color-coded indicator when you check the weather report, but never took the time to study it closely. Now is the time to familiarize yourself with the AQI as an easy and convenient way to protect your health.
About the Index
Each day, the Department of Environmental Quality creates a report for every metropolitan area with over 350,000 inhabitants. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requires that this report is made public each and every day. Known as the Air Quality Index, the report measures specific pollutant levels from the previous day in order to make a determination on the level of air quality.
The purpose of the AQI is to give people the opportunity to protect themselves from unhealthful levels of pollutants. The elements taken into account are particulate matter, ozone, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide. Based on levels of these pollutants, a number and color is used to indicate the day’s air quality level.
Who Benefits from the Index?
Everyone can benefit from referring to the AQI. For example, if you are a jogger, the AQI will tell you if it’s necessary to exercise in the early morning hours when pollution is less intense. People in charge of sports teams, nursing homes and day care centers benefit immensely from the AQI. They can look at the trends in air quality to determine when to schedule time outdoors or the most vigorous activities.
If you suffer from respiratory conditions like asthma or acute bronchitis, you should regularly monitor the AQI, if do not already. For example, if the AQI level falls in the “orange” range, you should avoid prolonged outdoor exertion. If you suffer from heart disease, the AQI is important for you, too. Like people with lung disease, inhaling too many particle pollutants can aggravate your condition. The AQI looks at car emissions, factory chemical by-products, dust, pollen and mold spores, which are all particles that can make you more susceptible to heart attack and arrhythmias.
In addition to particle pollutants, the AQI measures ozone levels in the environment. Ozone is a toxic gas that can damage lungs by causing inflammation to the cells. It is most prevalent in the late afternoon and early evening during the summer months.
Anyone is vulnerable when levels are extremely high, but people with lung disease, children and the elderly should avoid prolonged outdoor activity. When unhealthy levels are present, you may experience coughing, burning in the chest, shortness of breath, or the need to use asthma medications more often. Checking the AQI allows you to avoid these symptoms by taking it easy or remaining indoors when air quality is poor.
As public health officials try to raise awareness about the effects of air quality on our health, it is vital to take responsibility for our own well-being by getting to know the AQI. This useful tool makes it easy to have healthy, productive days. That’s something that should make everyone breathe a little easier.
Mark Rosenberg, M.D.