Air Quality Alerts; What You Can Do About Them


Mindy McAdams, Flickr

Kids playing in Boston’s Christian Science Plaza Fountain, by Mindy McAdams on Flickr

The heat is here!

Even though it’s technically still spring until late June, it feels as though summer has already come to stay in southern New England. While we New Englanders pride ourselves on being able to handle all kinds of weather, the health risks posed by poor air quality shouldn’t be ignored.

On a hot summer day, I know I make sure to check the weather in the morning before leaving to see how hot it might get and if there’s a chance of rain. Weather reports and weather websites are good at giving us lots of data about the day’s weather in general (hourly temperatures, chance of rain, and radar maps tracking storms), but don’t always give a detailed explanation when there’s an air quality alert (like there is this weekend).

What does an Air Quality Alert really mean?

The Air Quality Index combines measurements of ground level ozone and particulate matter to determine when levels of those pollutants might be harmful to humans.

Ground level ozone forms when pollution from cars, construction equipment, factories, and power plants containing oxides of nitrogen and volatile organic chemicals mix in sunlight. While lots of ground level ozone is formed in urban areas on hot days, it can also be blown over long distances by wind. Particulate matter is just what it sounds like, particles from construction dust and pollen down to heavy metals and toxic pollutants. Both ground level ozone and particulate matter can be inhaled and cause serious respiratory problems. Southern New England and the mid-Atlantic seaboard are at special risk for ground level ozone and particulate pollution due to the combination of big cities and winds blowing east.

Ground level ozone and particulate matter at levels that commonly occur here in the summer can cause some very unpleasant health problems for even healthy adults (coughing and wheezing isn’t a lot of fun), but can be dangerous and even life-threatening for kids with asthma or other breathing problems, adults with chronic conditions, and the elderly. And some studies suggest that ground-level ozone can actually cause asthma and breathing problems in kids. Adults at risk and parents of kids at risk probably know more about all of this than the average person, but hearing that there’s an Air Quality Alert on the weather can still leave anyone with a lot of questions.

As you can see from the AQI scale, a score of 50 would be labeled “good” and 51 would be “moderate,” so more precise data is essential. That information isn’t always available on a weather report, which is where the EnviroFlash website comes in. They plot the hourly Air Quality Index measurements on maps, so you can check out the forecast and close to real-time information about local air quality:

EnviroFlash this morning

What can I do about bad air quality in the summer?

While there are of course steps that people at risk from elevated ground level ozone and particulate levels can take to protect themselves from dangerous breathing events, the good news is that there are simple and very important things we can all do to help prevent elevated air quality:

  • Prevent your car from contributing to vehicle emissions: try to limit driving trips and take public transportation if possible.
  • Reduce the amount of electricity that your household uses, keeping the worst-emitting fossil fuel fired power plants from being pressed into service: Keep your air conditioner a few degrees higher, and make sure to turn lights and electronics off when you’re not using them.

 

 

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