There are three forecasts I check with some regularity. Of course the weather forecast is the most important and needs no introduction… and still represents a miracle of modern technology and science. Another forecast I enjoy is the night sky constellations and astronomical objects on display in the sky above. But recently I’ve begun checking the daily reporting of the quality of the air we breathe.
In the short term such forecasts may help those at risk of asthma attacks or respiratory problems better plan their outdoor activities, and those at high risk of cardiovascular events can better prepare for days full of high particulates which can trigger heart attacks, strokes, and arrhythmia. And in the long term perhaps awareness of when our air is the most unhealthy might lead to incremental benefits in terms of longevity. One only need consider the high rates of cancer and respiratory illnesses in China’s polluted cities to extrapolate back to the U.S. on a smaller, but significant scale of potential harm.
If the air quality is expected to be bad, there are several things one can do to reduce the risks of adverse health effects. Essentially, consider when and where your activities are planned. Limiting outdoor exertion on these bad days is the gist of it.
The EPA calculates an Air Quality Index (AQI) based on 5 major air pollutants regulated by the Clean Air Act: ground-level ozone, particulate pollution, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide. Of these problems, ozone and particulates pose the most significant threats.
The AQI scale runs from 0 to 500, with a score of 500 indicating we might as well wear scuba gear to get groceries. Above 300 is considered hazardous, while below 50 is good. A level of 100 corresponds with the EPA’s national air quality standard for that particular pollutant.
The AQI partners with a host of local, national, and international partners including NASA, NOAA, CDC, National Park Service, and various state departments of Environmental Management and Conservation… so this should not be considered a political tool of propaganda by anyone suspicious of the EPA, or who is prone to undermining their own economic and social self interest by mindlessly extolling the virtues of unregulated energy industries… but I digress.
But perhaps the most important function of instruments such as the Air Quality Index is to promote a greater awareness of the many harmful, polluting inputs into the air we breathe. We should all be working towards cleaner technologies, incorporating small individual measures of conservation into our own little lives, and supporting industries and legislation that promote a broader green ideal.