Despite their “green” reputations, Portland and Seattle recently were named the dirtiest cities in the world. This was based solely on their exceptionally poor air quality at the time, caused by wildfires in the region.
For people with mesothelioma, these reports can be scary. You may wonder: How will this affect my health? How can I find out more about air pollution?
Fortunately, you can get all the information you need from the air quality index (AQI).
The AQI indicates how clean or polluted local air is. The ratings provide information on potential health effects when people are exposed to polluted air.
Understanding how to find and use AQI ratings can help people undergoing mesothelioma treatment make important decisions about their daily activities.
If the AQI indicates air quality is very poor, people who are sensitive to this type of pollution may need to avoid being outdoors until the air quality improves.
Sensitive groups include people with pleural mesothelioma and other lung diseases, pregnant women, young children and older adults.
Knowing your local AQI ratings will help you minimize the risk of experiencing the unpleasant and potentially dangerous side effects of air pollution exposure.
Which Pollutants Are Included in the AQI?
The Environmental Protection Agency calculates the AQI for five major air pollutants regulated by the Clean Air Act:
Ground-Level Ozone: This pollutant is not emitted directly into the air. It is formed from chemical reactions between other pollutants. Ground-level ozone is different from the ozone layer in the upper atmosphere, which protects us against excessive ultraviolet radiation from the sun.
Particle Pollution: Most particulate matter in the air is the result of chemical reactions between pollutants. During fire season, some parts of the country experience extremely high levels of particulate matter pollution because of forest fires.
Carbon Monoxide: The biggest sources of this pollutant are cars, trucks and other machines that burn fossil fuels.
Sulfur Dioxide: This substance results from burning sulfur or materials containing sulfur, such as high-sulfur coal. Sulfur dioxide is the main component of acid rain.
Nitrogen Dioxide: This pollutant primarily gets into the air from the emissions of cars, trucks, buses, power plants and off-road equipment.
What Do AQI Numbers Mean?
The AQI runs from 0 to 500. The higher the AQI value, the greater the level of air pollution. Higher numbers mean there is more health concern for people exposed to the air pollution.
Based on EPA-established standards for each of the five major pollutants, an AQI value of 100 or lower is generally thought of as an acceptable level of pollution.
An AQI value of 35 represents good air quality. This level of air pollution is considered safe for all members of a community.
When AQI values are above 100, air quality is considered to be unhealthy. A value of 100 may signal unhealthy air because one or more of the pollutants are above 100.
An AQI value over 300 represents air quality so hazardous that everyone may experience serious effects. This AQI value would trigger health warnings of emergency conditions.
Certain AQIs Not Healthy for Sensitive Groups
The potentially confusing AQI numbers fall between 50 and 100.
While AQI values up to 100 are considered safe for most people, readings between 50 and 100 can create health issues for sensitive groups.
These sensitive groups include people with heart disease or mesothelioma, lung cancer, emphysema, asthma and other lung diseases. Pregnant women, young children and older adults also are included in the sensitive group category.
Only levels below 50 are rated as truly safe for all members of the community, including members of sensitive groups.
For people with mesothelioma, paying extra attention to the AQI number itself will help you determine how air pollution may affect your health.
The local weather report may say the air quality is fine for most people. However, if the AQI number falls between 50 and 100, it may not be safe for you.
Does the Type of Pollution Matter?
Particulate matter and ozone tend to cause the most health concern for healthy and sensitive groups.
If the AQI ranges between 50 and 100 and the pollution is coming from ozone or particulate matter, sensitive groups are more likely to be affected.
If most of the air pollution is from one of the other five major pollutants, members of sensitive groups are more likely to tolerate an AQI of up to 100 without major health effects.
Regardless of the type of pollution, an AQI above 100 is not safe for sensitive groups, including mesothelioma patients.
AQI focuses on health effects a person may experience within a few hours or days after breathing polluted air. However, some people report feeling poorly within minutes of exposure to highly polluted air.
If you have mesothelioma symptoms that affect your ability to breathe well, pay particular attention to ozone and particulate matter.
If the AQI for either of these pollutants is above 50, you may experience health problems if you go outside for more than a few minutes at a time.
How Communities Determine AQI Each Day
More than a thousand air monitors are located throughout the United States. These monitors provide daily readings for the concentrations of the five major pollutants.
These readings are converted into an AQI value for each of the pollutants. When AQI is above 100 for more than one pollutant, the highest is reported first.
For example, if particulate matter is 150 and ozone is 130, the AQI will be reported as 150, with an indication this is due to particle pollution. The high ozone reading will be reported as a second, separate pollutant of concern.
The AQI reporting also will indicate which sensitive groups need to take extra caution to avoid negative health impacts.
Find Your Community AQI
There are several ways to find the AQI for your area:
The AirNow website provides daily AQI updates and forecasts. You can enter your ZIP code or state in the search boxes at the top of the webpage for detailed information for your area.
The EnviroFlash service offers free email alerts when the air quality in your area is of concern.
Many local media outlets include AQI levels along with their normal weather reporting services. This includes radio, television and newspapers.
Regardless of how you get your information, start paying attention to AQI. This will help you plan for those times when you need to avoid prolonged exposure to outdoor air.
Simply staying indoors typically protects most people from the worst effects of air pollution. An indoor air purifier may be helpful if you live in an area with a significant number of high AQI days every year.