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Air Quality in Pennsylvania: How to be Air Aware

May 03, 2022 08:00 AM

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Tulips in PittsburghEvery day, we all make educated choices to protect our health. We wash our hands, we put on sunscreen and insect repellent, we choose healthy foods to eat.

But every day, there is an often-overlooked part of our daily lives that can cause respiratory distress or serious physical conditions in millions of people—local air quality.

We cannot see the air we breathe. The air contains gas and fine particle contaminants that cannot be seen by the naked eye. These pollutants are found in haze, smoke, and dust. Sometimes the air looks clean, but the pollutants can cause a variety of health problems for some people. Those problems can be severe in certain portions of the population.  

This is the time of year when warmer weather encourages us to spend more time outdoors. Just as you would check the weather forecast before heading outside, it would also be a good idea to be familiar with the Air Quality Index  or AQI.  Local air quality affects how you breathe and how you live. 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. 

Country road in the Pennsylvania mountains on a pretty spring day

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 of these contribute to air pollution. Some fine particle pollutants are released directly into the atmosphere while others, like ozone, form 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.  

Spring in HarrisburgChildren 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.  

Terms such as nitrogen oxide, particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, and volatile organic chemicals might not mean much to the average person. But they are common pollutants, the levels of which affect daily air quality. Recent trends show lower levels of pollutants in Pennsylvania and the United States in the past few decades. But even though conditions have improved, there are still many people 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.

Appalachian Trail near Boiling Springs, Pennsylvania

There are some commonsense tips that you can incorporate into your daily routine that will help reduce air pollution.   

  • Instead of driving, bicycle, walk, or run. If you must drive, 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 and 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 and 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 barbecue 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, and bags instead. It takes fossil fuels to make disposable goods. After use, they end up in a landfill or get incinerated, which causes air pollution.

So every day, as you choose to do small things to protect and improve your health like going for a walk or a bike ride, why not add checking the air quality before you go? You’ll know what conditions to expect, so you can make choices that help make your outdoor experiences healthier and more enjoyable.

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