Smog and Pollution: What Do Air Quality Alerts Actually Mean?
Poor air quality can making breathing-related conditions worse. Find out how air quality alerts can help you protect yourself and your family when pollution levels are high.
Most people know that air quality alerts can warn you when air pollution levels rise. But you may not know exactly what they mean — or how they can help you protect your health.
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Pulmonologist Sumita Khatri, MD, answers our questions on how the Air Quality Index works, what impact poor air quality has on your health and how you can minimize its effects.
A: It measures five pollutants regulated by the Clean Air Act:
Human activity, such as manufacturing and burning fossil fuels for transportation, produces these pollutants. Some are at higher levels during certain times of the year, especially if there are wildfires happening.
“Wildfires cause poor air quality hundreds to even thousands of miles away and weather patterns affect the dispersion of the air pollution,” says Dr. Khatri. “Ozone is generally more of a problem in the summer, while particulate matter is a year-round pollutant.”
A: The Air Quality Index rates air quality levels on a scale of 0 to 500. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) describes the ratings this way:
Dr. Khatri notes that the EPA sets the overall rating according to the pollutant that’s at the highest level at any given time. For example, if the ozone value is 200, the EPA rates the air quality that day at the “unhealthy” level, even if other pollutants are at lower levels.
A: Poor air quality can make breathing-related conditions worse. This includes conditions such as:
And, poor air quality affects other people as well. It’s associated with heart attacks, arrhythmia (irregular heart beat) and strokes.
“Even though you’re inhaling the air, it doesn’t just impact your lungs,” Dr. Khatri says. “Pollution can increase inflammation all over the body, and inflammation plays a role in all kinds of illnesses.”
One study found that people walking in high-traffic areas in London had higher levels of inflammation than those walking in a park.
A: Dr. Khatri recommends that you take the following measures on days when air quality is poor:
A: Yes. Since the pollutants that cause poor air quality are the result of human activity, you can help by making some changes.
“You may feel like what you’re doing is just a little drop in the ocean,” says Dr. Khatri. “But these sorts of incremental efforts make a difference.”