Open the windows. Take a walk. Get some fresh air.
Sounds like good, commonplace advice. And it used to be, depending on the location. But we’re past the time we can think and talk about “climate change” in only a futuristic or episodic way. Our air quality has changed and continues to change. The sad fact is, outdoor air is not necessarily “fresh” anymore.
Smoke, full of unhealthy particulates from forest fires in Canada, is expected to continue to drift in and out of our air until that country’s wildfire season winds down at the end of the summer. As individuals, we need to tap into expert information frequently to determine how to respond to air quality levels, starting now and into the future.
Taking deep breaths of outside air is probably OK most days for most people—even runners, pickle ball players, construction workers and people with health issues. But on other days or parts of days, it may not be healthy to exercise or even just breathe a lot of unfiltered outdoor air due to increased particulates or ozone.
Public health officials remind us that concentrations of fine particle air pollutants are of concern, especially for vulnerable groups such as people with respiratory diseases, older people, children and other people with compromised health. It’s good to keep in mind that it’s not great even for healthy people to experience poor air quality frequently or for extended periods of time.
Exposure to air pollution reduces life expectancy now up to a quarter of a year in North America (about the same effect as regularly smoking), according to State of Global Health, an organization funded by the Clean Air Fund, that provides access to information about air pollution and its health effects.
According to Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, a recent meta-analysis it did “strengthens prior evidence of a link between air pollutants, [especially particulates], and clinical dementia.”
We’re used to checking the weather on our phones or other devices before going out. Now it’s a good idea, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), for us to monitor the Air Quality Index (AQI) as well.
Pollen-allergy sufferers can and often do check on pollen counts regularly through email subscriptions and apps on their phones. Climate change is affecting people with various respiratory issues, including pollen allergies and asthma, turning them into proverbial canaries in our climate change coal mine. Increases in pollen, humidity and heat we are experiencing here this year—all resulting from climate change—tend to affect breathing negatively, along with increasing particulates and ozone from time to time.
People need to start checking air quality as often as they get the weather forecast or temperature read. We can’t assume air outdoors is good for us all the time. The sky doesn’t need to be orange or the wind smell like a campfire for the air to not be “safe to breathe” for everyone. We can’t tell how safe it is without checking with experts. And our air quality is much like the weather in that it can change frequently.
In a June 30 press release regarding the wildfire smoke that’s been drifting over Jamaica Plain, New England and other parts of the country off and on for weeks, the U.S agency wrote:
“EPA encourages people to check their Air Quality Index (AQI) throughout the day to be aware of their local air quality at https://www3.epa.gov/region1/airquality/aqi.html. Hazy skies, reduced visibility, and the odor of burning wood is likely as the smoke plumes [from Canada] are transported over the region. During the times that significant smoke is in your area, it is recommended that people with pre-existing medical conditions remain indoors with windows closed while circulating indoor air with a fan or air conditioner. For more tips, see https://www.airnow.gov/wildfires/when-smoke-is-in-the-air/. ”
Smoke, or “haze,” as at least one local TV weather forecaster has taken to calling it, even when it affects the AQI, isn’t the only possible air pollution problem outside.
We’re so used to checking TV, phone, radio, websites, etc., for updates about weather, it’s natural for us to look to them for reliable, timely, necessary air quality information. But right now most media only report occasionally, randomly and casually on air quality—even if there’s smoke in the sky—sometimes as news, sometimes as weather, often not at all.
Needing to know AQI is a new thing brought about by climate change—exemplified by extreme wild fires that flare up when its unusually dry. Information about air quality has not been a regular part of weather reports up to now. We can only wait and see if air quality information becomes a regular, dependable feature of news or weather, especially if and when it’s troublesome.
To get regular texts or emails of Air Quality Notifications for your area sent to you by Enviroflash, sign up for a subscription here: https://www.enviroflash.info/signup.cfm.
Vox, an online source specializing in providing accurate scientific information to the public, explains and gives useful details about the AQI and how to understand it. (https://www.vox.com/climate/23769186/bad-air-quality-index-wildfires-pollution).
AQI is reported in a six-colored bar that goes from 0-to 301 and above: “Green (0–50): The air is safe to breathe. Yellow (51–100): The air quality is considered moderate, except for the most sensitive groups. Orange (101–150): Sensitive groups should reduce heavy exertion outside or take more breaks, and people with asthma and heart disease should watch for symptoms. Red (151–200): The air is unhealthy for everyone. Sensitive groups should avoid being active outdoors, while everyone else should reduce their time outdoors. Purple and Maroon (151–301) are higher and seldom seen here. Places in Boston and/or JP are usually rated Green, Yellow or Orange.
When particulates are present, protective masks are sometimes recommended for vulnerable people who must breathe outside air.
Unless and until mass media reliably inform us of AQI levels, we have to check expert sources ourselves. The EPA suggests some good ways: It’s good to stay up to date on local air quality, forecasts and alerts through the AirNow app, available for free on the Apple App Store and Google Play Store. We can also use the app to check the AirNow Fire and Smoke Map at https://fire.airnow.gov or tap the Smoke icon in the AirNow app.
Other sources: Real-time ozone data and air quality forecasts New England Air Quality Index; National real-time air quality data (free iPhone and Android apps) AirNow.
Air quality data in the U.S. now comes from thousands of air quality sensors attached to the ground, with many more in urban areas than in rural ones. Next year, as reported by Soledad O’Brien on the TV show “Matter of Fact” last week, two satellites will be launched to collect air quality information around the world from above. That will be a big step forward in gathering accurate data to deal more uniformly, thoroughly and precisely with this ongoing effect of climate change that directly impacts our health.
Sandee Storey is the Publisher Emerita of the Jamaica Plain Gazette.