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Air Quality Index: It's What We Breathe

Air Quality Index: It's What We Breathe

Every day, without giving it a second thought, we breathe. On average, the adult human at rest takes about 16 breaths per minute. This means we breathe about 960 breaths an hour, 23,040 breaths a day, and 8,409,600 breaths a year! An 80 year old person will take about 672,768,000 breaths in their lifetime. (This does not take into account the increase in breathing during exercise, or the fact that young children take about 44 breaths per minute.)

 Now consider what we are breathing in. The Air Quality Index (AQI) helps us to do that. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and our local air quality agency work together to make information about outdoor air quality easy to find and understand through a tool called the Air Quality Index. The AQI provides simple information about your local air quality, how unhealthy air may affect you, and how you can protect your health.

 The AQI is an measurement for reporting daily air quality. It focuses on how your  health may be affected after breathing unhealthy air. The AQI is calculated for four major air pollutants regulated by the Clean Air Act:

·         Ground-level ozone forms near the ground when pollutants, such as cars, power plants, refineries, and chemical plants, react chemically in sunlight. Ozone pollution is more likely to form during warmer months

·         Particle pollution consists of a mixture of solids and liquid droplets. Fine particles are so small they can only be detected with a microscope. Major sources include motor vehicles, power plants, residential wood burning, forest fires, and agricultural burning. Coarse particle sources result from crushing or grinding operations and dust stirred up by vehicles traveling on roads

·         Carbon monoxide is an odorless, colorless gas. It forms when the carbon in fuels does not completely burn. Vehicle exhaust contributes roughly 75% of all carbon monoxide emissions nationwide, and up to 95% in cities. Other sources include fuel combustion in industrial processes and natural sources, such as wildfires. Carbon monoxide levels typically are highest during cold weather

·         Sulfur dioxide is a colorless, reactive gas. It is produced when sulfur-containing fuels such as coal and oil are burned. Generally, the highest levels of sulfur dioxide are found near large industrial complexes. Major sources include power plants, refineries, and industrial boilers

For each of these pollutants, the EPA has established national air quality standards to protect public health.

 When interpreting the index, think of the AQI as a yardstick that runs from 0 to 500. The higher the AQI value, the greater the level of air pollution, and the greater the health concern. The AQI is divided into six levels of health concern:

·         Good: The AQI value is between 0 and 50. Air quality is satisfactory and poses little or no health risk

·         Moderate: The AQI is between 51 and 100. Air quality is acceptable. However, pollution in this range may pose a moderate health concern for a very small number of individuals. People who are unusually sensitive to ozone or particle pollution may experience respiratory symptoms

·         Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups: When AQI values are between 101 and 150, members of sensitive groups may experience health effects, but the general public is unlikely to be affected

·         Unhealthy: Everyone may begin to experience health effects when AQI values are between 151 and 200. Members of sensitive groups may experience more serious health effects

·         Very Unhealthy: AQI values between 201 and 300 trigger a health alert, meaning everyone may experience more serious health effects

·         Hazardous: AQI values over 300 trigger health warnings of emergency conditions. The entire population is more likely to be affected by serious health effects

AQI image.png


In large cities (more than 350,000 people), state and local agencies are required to report the AQI to the public daily. Many smaller communities also report the AQI as a public health service. Those especially at risk when exposed to air pollution include

·         People with lung diseases, such as asthma, chronic bronchitis, and emphysema

·         Children and teenagers, as they most often play outdoors

·         Older adults, as they are more likely to have lung disease

·         Active people of all ages who exercise or work vigorously outdoors

Health effects include

·         Irritation of the respiratory system: coughing, throat soreness, airway irritation, chest tightness, and/or chest pain when taking a deep breath

·         Reduce lung function

·         Inflame and damage the cells that line the lungs

·         Make the lungs more susceptible to infection

·         Aggravate asthma and other chronic lung diseases

·         Cause permanent lung damage


AQI world real-time map: http://berkeleyearth.org/air-quality-real-time-map/

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