Summertime – and the Breathing is Easy — cough, wheeze, pant…

If you, your child, or your patients have asthma, you may have noticed that symptoms get worse on hot, humid days. Unfortunately, ozone and particles in the air – the main components of air pollution — may be to blame. People who suffer from wheezing, coughing, or shortness of breath on hot days should consider staying in air conditioned environments when air pollution levels are high.

How can you find out what the air pollution levels are in your community?

Look up your Air Quality Index
The Air Quality Index (AQI) was developed by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to report daily air quality. It describes how clean the air is and what health effects might be a concern. Monitors across the country record levels of pollution and convert the results into a score which is reported to the public. Many areas also attempt to forecast upcoming AQI so you can plan your outdoor activities to avoid exposure.

What Does the AQI Measure?
The AQI is calculated for each of the 5 major air pollutants regulated by the EPA in the Clean Air Act. These pollutants are ozone, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide. Ozone and particulate matter are the most common pollutants that cause elevated AQIs. Large cities are required to report their values, and most public health agencies in smaller communities also report the AQI as one of their public health services.

What Does the AQI Number Mean?
The AQI is reported both as a number and a color. Green and yellow levels are acceptable, and various red shades mean the value is unhealthy. In general, values less than 100 are acceptable, although people with particular sensitivities to certain pollutants may experience symptoms. Levels 101-150 are described as “unhealthy for sensitive groups.” These groups include children, older adults, or people with lung diseases such as asthma and emphysema. Values from 151-200 mean that even healthy people may start to have symptoms; 201-300 triggers a health alert stating that more serious health risks may occur, and greater than 300 will trigger an air quality emergency.

Why Does it Matter?
Local air quality affects how you breathe. This is especially true for those who suffer from lung conditions such as asthma or are in high risk groups such as children or older adults. Research has shown that higher AQI levels correlate with increased ER visits for asthma.

How can I find out my community’s AQI?

You can find the AQI in multiple places:
Internet: Multiple agencies have developed websites that report the AQI. www.airnow.gov has AQI information for over 300 cities across the US.
Email: There is a free service called Enviroflash which will alert you via email about the air quality in your area. Their website is www.enviroflash.com
Local Media: Television, radio and newspapers often include AQI information as part of their weather forecasts or weather sections.

What Do I Do With This Information?
If you suffer from lung disease or are in a high risk group you can look up the Air Quality Index and take preventive measures if the levels are elevated. The most important measures are reducing the amount of time and intensity of outdoor activities when AQI levels are elevated. By looking at the AQI you can tailor your outdoor activities in order to prevent breathing problems before they occur.

August 2015. This post was written by Christopher George, MD, MPH, University of Illinois at Chicago Residency in Occupational and Environmental Medicine, and Susan Buchanan, MD, MPH, Director of the Great Lakes Center for Children’s Environmental Health – Region 5 Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit (PEHSU).

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