What you need to know about air quality
California has been experiencing a widespread outbreak of wildfires. Firefighters are working tirelessly around the clock to contain the blazes. While civilian precautions, such as evacuations are being taken, it’s important to recognize the effects of a fire can travel beyond the immediately affected area. Disasters such as wildfire can cause poor air quality for hundreds of miles.
In addition to devastating the land, vegetation, animal habitats and any man-made structures in its path, a wildfire will critically impact the air quality of surrounding areas. It’s vital to take stock of the air quality in your area and ensure that you’re taking steps to protect yourself if the air quality is poor. While wildfires can be a main cause of poor air quality, they aren’t the only cause—smog and other types of air pollution can also create unsafe or hazardous air quality conditions.
Air Quality Index
The Air Quality Index (AQI) is a scale that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) uses to assess air quality across the United States. In the interest of protecting public health, the EPA tracks the concentration of various pollutants in our air including ground level ozone, particle pollution, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide. The scale is rated on a 0-500 level, with zero being the best and 500 being the worst, and also has corresponding colors for various ranges and ratings. Below is a chart from the AQI website which breaks down the varying levels.
The dangers of poor air quality
Air quality can plummet at an alarming rate due to wildfires or high smog days. This toxic air can actually cause more harm to your health than you might think. Children, the elderly, those with asthma and those who exercise or work outside can be particularly susceptible. However, just because you’re not a part of one of these groups does not mean you’re exempt from being negatively affected by poor air quality.
Air containing high concentrations of pollutants can cause various negative health effects resulting in both short- and long-term impact. In the short term, eyes, nose and lung irritation may occur. Coughing is a common symptom with throat and lung irritation. Long-term effects may include infection of the eyes, nose, lungs, mucus membranes, a reduced lung capacity, lung cancer, cardiovascular disease and even death.
There are many steps you can take to protect yourself from the dangers of poor air quality. The first step would be to check the AQI on a daily basis for your area. Pay attention to low quality warnings and make plans that accommodate the AQI for that particular day. Avoid smoggy areas such as busy intersections. Moving your walking path to a parallel street can be enough to avoid toxic fumes put out by a busy street filled with cars and buses. On days where the AQI is at 101 or higher, avoid spending time or exercising outdoors.
If there is a wildfire in your area, keep your windows shut and use fans or an air conditioner with a clean filter to keep your space cool. Make sure to change the filter every six months with regular use or more often with high use or after an area fire. Overall, the population can reduce air pollution and strive for better air quality by reducing the amount of energy we use, fossil fuels we burn and the total amount of greenhouse gases we put into the environment.
Breathing polluted air can cause an assortment of health issues. With the recent wildfires, it’s important to monitor the air quality in your area. Knowing how air quality is rated, checking the air quality in your area on a daily basis and taking precautions when the air quality is poor are important steps in maintaining healthy lung and body function. Go further and work toward improving air quality by reducing your energy use and other actions. You’ll breathe easier knowing that the air you’re bringing into your body is fresh and clean!