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What an Air Quality Alert Means For Me

What an Air Quality Alert Means For Me

Jun 7, 2023

This week, you may have noticed an air quality alert pop up on your phone or computer. Cities and townships across the Northeast — including those in South Jersey — are experiencing an elevated air quality index due to forest fires in Canada. But many of us do not fully understand what these air quality alerts mean, and why they are important to pay attention to. How can air quality affect our bodies? What should people do when there's an air quality alert, and who is at high risk of being affected by air quality? Here’s what you need to know, and how to protect yourself. 

What are unhealthy air quality alerts?

In 1999, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) created the Air Quality Index (AQI) to measure and report on the amount of pollutants in the air on a day-to-day basis. The Clean Air Act of 1970 identified the five major pollutants in the air the AQI measures: 

  • Ground-level ozone (when cars, power plants, industrial boilers, refineries and other sources of pollutants create a chemical reaction in the sunlight) 
  • Particle pollution or particulate matter (the vehicle and industrial emissions from fossil fuel combustion, cigarette smoke and burning organic matter, such as wildfires)
  • Carbon monoxide
  • Sulfur dioxide
  • Nitrogen dioxide

“The AQI measures the amount of pollutants in the air from 0-500, with anything under 100 considered satisfactory in terms of air quality while anything over 100 causes concern and alert,” said Raleke Adibe, D.O., Physician at Inspira Primary Care Somerdale.

The AQI is a vital tool in warning residents about conditions that may impact their health. Now, AQI reporting is available at our fingertips via color-coded smartphone alerts.

Air quality alerts mirror much of what we learned throughout our childhood: green means go, yellow or orange means slow down and red tells us to stop. When a code red air quality alert is sent out, that means air pollution concentrations are unhealthy for the general population and outdoor activity should be avoided.

How can air quality affect our bodies?

Research on how air pollution impacts our bodies evolves every year, with a growing list of short-and long-term effects. 

Short-term effects of bad air quality include: 

  • Pneumonia
  • Bronchitis
  • Irritation to the nose, throat, eyes and skin 
  • Headaches 
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea 

Long-term effects of air pollution can last for months, years or become a lifelong struggle. They include: 

  • Heart disease
  • Lung cancer
  • Respiratory diseases such as emphysema
  • Damage to people's nerves, brain, kidneys, liver and other organs

“When the index hits 101 or above, the outdoor air may not be an active threat to many people but older adults and children are at increased risk,” said Dr. Adibe. “People with heart and lung disease may also be at greater risk.”

How do you stay safe during times of unhealthy air quality?

Depending on the severity of the pollution or the type of event, air quality can remain unhealthy for extended periods of time. In order to stay healthy when a code red is issued and for at-risk populations if a code orange/yellow is issued: 

  • Stay inside when possible, with the windows and doors closed 
  • Avoid outdoor activities that are taxing on the body, such as exercising or mowing the lawn 
  • If you have air conditioning, run it continuously versus using an automatic setting
  • Avoid frying food or other cooking activities that might create additional smoke
  • Avoid smoking cigarettes 

If you are concerned about the health risks associated with air pollution, consult your health care provider.

Inspira Health is a high reliability organization (HRO), which means safety is the top priority for patients and staff. To make an appointment, call 1-800-INSPIRA.

Topics: Primary Care