When planning an outdoor activity, would you make plans without first checking the weather forecast? Is it going to be sunny or cloudy? Is there a chance of precipitation? Will it be warm or cold? Most would probably check the daily weather forecast and plan accordingly.
A warm, sunny day may appear to be perfect for being outdoors, but it’s what you don’t see that could cause problems, especially for certain portions of the population. The air we breathe contains gas and fine particle contaminants that cannot be seen by the naked eye. These pollutants are found in haze, smoke, and dust—and yes, sometimes in air that looks clean. The pollutants can cause a variety of health problems for some people.
Now with warmer weather upon us, chances are you will be spending more time outdoors. And there is another daily forecast that you might want to check. That would be the Air Quality Index
Local air quality affects how you live and breathe. And the AQI tells you how clean or polluted the air really is. It focuses on health effects that you may experience within a few hours or days after breathing polluted air. Like the weather, it can change from day to day or even hour to hour. The AQI uses color-coding to signify conditions:
- Green is good
- Yellow is moderate
- Orange is unhealthy for sensitive groups
- Red is unhealthy
Air pollution comes from many different sources. There are stationary sources such as factories and power plants; mobile sources such as cars, buses, planes, trucks, and trains; and naturally occurring sources such as windblown dust. All these contribute to air pollution. Some fine particle pollutants are released directly into the atmosphere while others, like ozone, are formed in the air by chemical reactions. Fine particle pollution
has been linked to heart attacks, asthma attacks, and the development of chronic bronchitis. Ozone, even at low levels, can aggravate respiratory diseases
. This leads to increased use of medication, more visits to health care providers, admissions to emergency rooms and hospitals, and even premature death.
Children are at higher risk because they spend more time outdoors and their developing lungs are prone to damage. Older adults are at higher risk because they have a higher chance of pre-existing respiratory or cardiovascular diseases, and as they get older, their bodies are less able to deal with such hazards. Other risk factors include family history of heart disease or stroke, high blood pressure, activity levels and socioeconomic factors such as limited access to medical care and proper nutrition.
But wait, there is good news! Air quality in the United States has improved in recent years. From 1970 to 2017, total national emissions of the six common pollutants has dropped an average of 73 percent! Here in Pennsylvania there have been remarkable drops in stationary source air pollution since 1990*:
- Nitrogen oxides (NOx) down 83%
- Particulate Matter (both 10 microns (PM10) and 2.5 microns (PM2.5)) down 31%
- Sulfur Dioxide (SOx) down 93%
- Volatile Organic Chemicals (VOCs) down 60%
*Data obtained from Pennsylvania’s annual stationary source emission inventory data.
But even though conditions have steadily improved, there are still many people who are exposed to high levels of pollution because of where they live and/or their vulnerability due to their health conditions. There are steps they can take to protect their health:
- Monitor the Air Quality Index.
- Know when and where air pollution may be bad.
- Schedule outdoor activities at times when the air quality is better. In the summer, this may be in the morning.
- Limit outdoor activities when pollutants are forecasted to be high.
- Use an air conditioner to help filter the air coming into the home.
There are some commonsense tips that you can incorporate into your daily routine that will help reduce air pollution.
- Take public transit, bicycle, walk, or run.
- If you do drive, carpool and combine errands into one trip.
- Don’t “top-off” your gas tank and tighten the gas cap. Spillage adds two tons of air pollution daily.
- Get the junk out of your trunk! An extra 100 pounds reduces gas mileage by up to 2%.
- Avoid aggressive driving. Speeding, rapid acceleration, and hard braking can reduce gas mileage by 33% at highway speeds.
- Slow down & save. Each 5 MPH that you drive over 60 MPH reduces fuel economy by up to 5%.
- Turn it off! Idling your car or truck wastes gas & pollutes the air.
- Install a programmable thermostat in your home – no lower than 78 in summer.
- Use ENERGY STAR appliances that are more energy efficient.
- Start your BBQ with an electric probe or use a gas grill. Lighter fluid vaporizes quickly and adds VOCs to the air
- Postpone mowing the lawn until late in the day, or better yet, use an electric or manual mower.
- Use “spill-proof” gasoline containers.
- Refrain from using household sprays and oil-based paints.
- Ditch disposables! Use reusable coffee mugs, silverware, napkins, plates, straws, bags instead. It takes fossil fuels to make disposable goods. After use, they end up in a landfill or gets incinerated which causes air pollution.
So, check the daily AQI to know what conditions are expected to be like, take precautionary steps to prevent health-related issues, and follow simple commonsense tips to decrease air pollution. By following these three simple steps, you can ensure better health for yourself, and others.