Smoky, Hazy Days…What is an AQI? Air Quality Index!
Until recently, our respite from COVID19 sheltering in place was going out for a walk, maybe with a pet or a friend. The smoky days of the past week have taken this luxury away from many of us and put the lives of many Bay Area residents and brave firefighters at risk. Checking the air quality index (AQI) on our phones has become a daily ritual. (Look under your phone’s weather app, scroll past the forecast to the bottom; the AQI should be there.)
What is the number we check: the AQI? The air quality index (AQI) runs from 0-500 and measures 5 major pollutants in the air: ground level ozone, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide nitrogen dioxide. Smoke from wildfires contain these pollutants, and many more, that can travel great distances and embed in our lungs with their tiny particulate size. These pollutants can cause symptoms like coughing, burning in airways, and difficulty breathing with short term exposure.
The greater the AQI, the higher the potential impact on health, especially on sensitive groups like young children, elderly, those with preexisting heart/lung disease. Below is a basic guide for what AQI levels mean:
- 50 or below: “good air quality”
- 51-100 : acceptable for most people, unhealthy for very sensitive people
- 101-150 : unhealthy for sensitive groups
- 150-200 :unhealthy for most people, more so for sensitive groups (Some cities like Delhi and Jakarta have many days a year with the AQI>150!)
- 201-300: very unhealthy for everyone
- >301 hazardous conditions for everyone
The longer we are exposed to smoke, the greater the risk of developing more serious lung or cardiac problems. In addition, small studies have shown that continued exposure to smoke can increase the risk of mortality from COVID19 because the macrophages that help clear out bacteria and viruses from the cells can be rendered less effective by smoke.
Things we can do to protect our lungs and body with the poor air quality: stay inside when possible, avoid heavy exercise that has increased breathing, choose a well fitted N95 if you do go outside ( cloth masks are not effective against these smoke particles), use AC instead of open windows for the heat, use air purifiers if available, and try to keep your indoor space as clean as possible by holding off on burning candles, smoking or vacuuming!
The California Air Resources Board (CARB) uses AirNow.gov by the EPA to track air pollution across the state. PurpleAir.com is also a great resource to follow the AQI in your neighborhood.
This article is brought to you by Nandini Joseph, MD, a UC Berkeley student volunteering for NEXT Village SF this fall!
“I’m originally from Texas, but have spent the last 15 years in the Bay Area with my family. I am a physician in endocrinology and I am also completing my MPH (Master’s of Public Health) at UC Berkeley currently. I am interested in how we can change upstream factors to improve health for all. I am excited to be a part of the NEXT Village SF community and share and learn with you all.” – Nandini Joseph, MD