If you see smog, you can probably assume the air quality is bad, but what you might not see in the air can be just as dangerous to your health.
More than four out of 10 people live where the air is considered too dangerous to breathe. Stronger pollution standards in the U.S. have helped to decrease pollution particles in the air over the past decades.
However, air quality can improve or get worse on a daily basis, depending on pollen counts and air pollution at that time. Getting in the habit of checking the air quality in your area will allow you to take preventive measures to protect yourself against the health effects of bad air.
Decoding an air quality report
An air quality report generally gives values for particles and ozone. It may also give a pollen count.
Particles in the air are caused by polluting emissions from cars, wood burning and manufacturing.
Pollen is made of the very tiny particles from plants that float through the air to fertilize other plants.
Ozone develops in the air from gases that come from power plants, motor vehicles, smokestacks and many other sources. Ozone gases react with sunlight to form ozone smog.
Pollen counts range from 0 to 12, with higher counts indicating lower air quality. Pollen count ranges are color coded so that you can easily see whether a pollen count is low (green) or high (red).
The Air Quality Index (AQI) ranges from 0 to 500 and also is color coded:
- 0 to 50 is good air (green).
- 51 to 100 is acceptable, but some people may have breathing problems (yellow).
- 101 to 150 is considered unhealthy for sensitive people such as the young, old and those with heart and lung conditions (orange).
- 151 to 200 is unhealthy air and everyone may have some health effects from breathing it, but people in sensitive groups have a greater chance of experiencing more serious effects (red).
- 201 to 300 is air that is unhealthy for anyone to breathe (purple).
- 301 to 500 is hazardous air that is very unhealthy for anyone to breathe (maroon).
What’s so bad about bad air?
Ozone attacks lung tissue by chemically reacting with it. Breathing air with increased ozone puts people at risk for premature death, aggravated asthma, difficulty breathing, heart problems and lower birth weight babies.
Breathing air that contains pollution particles can cause asthma, damage the lungs and increase the risk of dying one to three years early. It has also been associated with an increased risk of dying from lung cancer.
Pollen in the air can cause allergic reactions that range from mild itching and redness of eyes and nose to wheezing and difficulty breathing.
Certain people are at greater risk
Some people are at greater risk of experiencing the ill effects of bad air quality. These groups include:
- People with lung problems like asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- Infants and younger people whose lungs are still developing
- People over 65 whose immune systems are less efficient
- People who are active outdoors, either for recreation or through their job
- People with chronic diseases like heart disease and diabetes
Where can you get information on air quality?
There are a number of good resources available to check the air quality and pollen levels in your area. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) runs a website called AirNow that provides today’s and tomorrow’s Air Quality Index.
The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology's (AAAAI) National Allergy Bureau has a daily mold and pollen report on their website.
The American Lung Association rates air quality for the day and for the year by zip code or state on a site called State of the Air.
The National Weather Service operates a site called Pollen, where you’ll find a five-day pollen allergy forecast for your zip code and a list of the most predominant types of pollen for those days.
Additionally, most local television stations have an air quality or pollen level report on their websites.
Protecting your health against bad air
The EPA advises that the best way to protect yourself against bad air is to make some changes that will reduce the amount of polluted air you breathe on days when the air quality is bad.
They stated that the chances of bad outdoor air quality affecting someone increases with the length of time spent outdoors and with more strenuous activities. The EPA recommends replacing activities requiring more exertion with those needing less, such as walking instead of jogging. Planning outdoor activities in the morning and evening when the ozone is likely to be lower also can help limit exposure.
AAAAI suggests limiting outdoor activities when pollen levels are high. They also recommend keeping home and car windows closed and showering after coming indoors to remove pollen.
The outdoors will be much more enjoyable if you know what the air quality will be and are prepared to deal with it.
According to Dr. David Winter, the Chief Clinical Officer, President and Chairman of the Board of HealthTexas Provider Network (HTPN), a division of Baylor Health Care System, "Not everyone has problems with pollen or mold, in fact only about 15-20 percent of adults, but anyone can suffer from ozone or smog if there is enough of the bad stuff in the air we breathe.
"When bad air affects you, staying indoors and keeping car air conditioners on recirculate can minimize exposure. Opening windows to bring in 'fresh air' is not always a good idea. Fresh air can bring in 'fresh smog' and 'fresh pollen,'" Dr. Winter said.
"For those who are sensitive to bad air, paying attention to air quality reports and modifying your exposure accordingly makes good sense," he said.