Breathing polluted air for only a few hours a day can have major impacts on your health.
The Air Quality Index (AQI) is a system created by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to help people understand the effects their local air quality will have on their health. Understanding the Air Quality Index is important because it will let you know how dangerous the air around you is to breathe and what kinds of precautions you should be taking to preserve your health.
How Air Quality is Determined
The Air Quality Index measures amounts of various pollutants such as ozone, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and particulate pollution in the environmental air. In terms of how air quality is determined, hourly measurements are taken of each of the various kinds of pollutants and then converted into a number of that starts at zero and goes upward using a scale or standard index.
“This index goes from 0 to 500, and the lower the number on the scale the better the air quality is. An AQI of 0 to 50 indicates good air quality, with a minimal possibility of harming an individual’s health and impacting the environment,” explains Kevin Wood, Camfil USA Vice President Sales & Marketing “However, an AQI of 300 to 500 would represent air quality with serious potential to harm people’s health and damage the environment.” (1)
The standard for acceptable air quality is 100, which corresponds to the type approved air quality standards that are safe for the public. AQI levels which are below 100 are highly desirable and satisfactory while values beyond 100 are seen as hazardous to human well-being.
During time periods with elevated AQI, public health institutions advise that sensitive groups like children and those who have respiratory problems stay indoors and limit activity, or use air pollution masks.
Dangers of Exposure to Poor Quality Air
It’s important to pay attention to air quality ratings because exposure to poor air quality can cause a variety of health problems including cardiovascular disease and cancer. The World Health Organization (WHO) warns that pollutants like nitrous oxide and sulfur dioxide can cause eye irritation, damage to the respiratory system, inflamed airways, and other health problems.
Long-term exposure to poor air quality can reduce overall lung function, and exacerbate issues for those with previously existing cardiovascular or lung diseases. Air pollution is thought to be responsible for the deaths of more than two million people every year.
Four major kinds of air pollutants include particulate pollution, carbon monoxide, ozone, and sulfur dioxide. Ozone is beneficial when present in the Earth’s upper atmosphere, but at ground level, it can cause damage to people’s respiratory systems. Carbon monoxide is a colorless and odorless gas which often is formed when carbon-based fuels do not burn completely, and breathing it reduces the amount of oxygen that reaches the body’s tissues and organs.
Sulfur dioxide is also colorless and is produced when fuels that contain sulfur, such as oil and coal are burned. Finally, particulate pollution is a mixture of liquid and solid droplets which often come from come busting the fuels and other sources, and it can cause or exacerbate heart and lung disease.
“To protect yourself from these pollutants, the EPA says you should avoid prolonged and heavy exertion on days with poor air quality ratings,” says Wood at Camfil. “Prolonged exertion is any activity performed outdoors for several hours which might cause you to breathe slightly faster than you would normally. Heavy exertion means any intense outdoor activities that would cause you to breathe heavily, regardless of the active length. Avoiding these types of exertion will reduce your intake of unhealthy poor quality air.” (2)
Understanding the Air Quality Index Through its Categories
Understanding the Air Quality Index through its categories is not complicated, and doing so may save your life. The EPA breaks up the AQI into six different sections. (3)
The first section is the values 0 to 50 on the AQI, represents good air quality, and is represented by the color green. Air in this category represents little to no risk for the health of the population.
Section two of the AQI refers to the values 51 to 100, represents acceptable air quality, and is represented by the color yellow. If air quality is in this category, it means that the air is generally safe, however, those who are unusually sensitive to air pollution should exercise caution.
Section three of the AQI contains the values 101 to 150, represents air that is unhealthy for sensitive groups, and is colored orange. Air in this category can harm members of sensitive groups, but the general public is not likely to be impacted by it.
The fourth section of the AQI runs from 151 to 200 and represents air that is unhealthy. It is denoted by the color red. The air of this quality can begin to affect the health of everyone who reads it, and those who are sensitive to respiratory health problems can experience more serious and dangerous health effects.
Section five of the AQI contains values 201 to 300, represents very unhealthy air, and is denoted by the color purple. At this level of air quality, everyone may experience serious health impacts.
Section six of the AQI contains all values above 300 and represents extremely unhealthy or hazardous air quality. It is represented by the color maroon. Air quality at this level is considered to be emergency conditions, and the entire population is likely to be impacted by it.
“It’s important to pay attention to the air quality rating where you live because it can have a measurable impact on your health and the health of your family,” says Wood at Camfil. “Understanding the air quality index and knowing that air quality is poor on a certain day will help you take measures to protect yourself, like limiting outdoor activity or ensuring your air filters are functioning. You can find out what the air quality rating in your area is by using the AirNow.Gov website.” (4) Additionally, it may be beneficial to run the fan on your HVAC system so the air in your building is being constantly filtered to remove contaminants of concern.
Get help understanding the Air Quality Index and learn how you can protect yourself and your family from poor air quality by visiting Camfil today. Camfil has built its reputation on providing quality on a budget. Camfil operates under the guiding principle that clean air is the right of all humans no matter where they live.
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