Posted by Christina Vanvuren , January 18, 2019 (last updated on November 20, 2020)
When was the last time you thought about the quality of air in your city? Perhaps it’s not something you’ve ever thought of. That is true for many people. However, air quality is critically important to the health of humans, animals, and the environment. In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) reports that 3 million deaths occur every year as a result of exposure to outdoor air pollution.
While you don’t need to go around worrying about whether you’re breathing in pollution (it’s everywhere—there’s truly no way to avoid it completely), having a good understanding about how to keep yourself and your family healthy is smart.
Below, learn what air quality is, which factors affect it, how polluted air can affect your health, and steps you can take to mitigate your risk of developing pollution-related symptoms or illness.
What is air quality?
The condition of the air you breath is known as air quality and it ranges from hazardous to good, depending on the level of pollutants found in it. Having good air quality is akin to having clean drinking water— it’s necessary to stay healthy. Some people are more sensitive to air pollution than others, including young children, the elderly, and people with asthma or allergies. Still, poor air quality can cause everyone to experience adverse health effects. When air pollution reaches high levels, it poses a health risk not only to humans, but also to plants, animals, and natural resources.
Air quality can be thought of in two categories: indoor air quality and outdoor air quality. Outdoor pollutants can impact the quality of the air inside your home. Indoor air pollutants may also contribute to environmental pollution, though not on as large a scale.
The quality of air depends on three factors:
- The number of pollutants present in the air
- The rate at which they are released into the atmosphere
- How long they are trapped in an area
Which factors affect outdoor air quality?
There are many things that can degrade air quality; most are man-made, though some (such as volcanic eruption and windstorm dust) are naturally-occurring. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Park Service, and tribal, state, and local agencies developed a system called AirNow, which reports the air quality index (AQI) for cities across North America. They measure five major pollutants that affect outdoor air quality. When any of these pollutants are present in high amounts, especially when the weather is humid and the air is stagnant, air quality gets worse.
Ozone is a form of oxygen and is not inherently bad. Actually, the ozone layer known as the stratosphere sits between 6 and 30 miles above the Earth’s surface and exists to protect life on Earth from ultraviolet radiation.
But ozone found in the troposphere, the layer closest to the Earth’s surface, is harmful. This is called ground-level ozone and is created by the chemical reactions between oxides of nitrogen (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). These reactions occur when pollution mixes with sunlight, which is why ozone pollution is more of a concern in the hot months of the summer.
According to the EPA, particulate matter, also called particle pollution, is a term for “a mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets found in the air. Some such particles, such as dust, dirt, soot, or smoke, are large or dark enough to be seen with the naked eye. Others are so small they can only be detected using an electron microscope.”
Most particles form in the air due to the chemical emissions from power plants, industries, and automobiles. The smaller the particle is, the worse it is for your health.
Nitrogen Dioxide is a highly reactive gas that gets in the air from the burning of fuel. Nitrogen Dioxide pollution typically comes from cars, trucks, buses, and power plants. The reaction of this pollution with other environmental factors creates small particles, which causes particulate pollution.
Power plants burning fossil fuels are the leading cause of the emission of Sulfur Dioxide into the air. This, too, causes small particles to form. Sulfur Dioxide also contributes to acid rain, “a broad term that includes any form of precipitation with acidic components, such as sulfuric or nitric acid that fall to the ground from the atmosphere in wet or dry forms.”
You may have a Carbon Monoxide alarm in your home. When this colorless, odorless gas is inhaled it can be extremely toxic. It’s released when something is burned, such as fuel in vehicles or machinery, or home items such as gas space heaters, furnaces, and gas stoves.
How is air quality being improved in 2019?
While air quality has gotten worse in many places, there are organizations around the world working tirelessly to lessen pollution and improve air quality. In 1970, the EPA initiated the Clean Air Act in the United States. The Clean Air Act regulates emissions of hazardous pollutants into the air from both stationary (such as power plants) and mobile sources (such as vehicles), in order to protect public health.
Non-government organizations working to improve air quality include:
While the work these organizations are doing is highly valuable and necessary, clean air all the time is a long way off. It’s important for you to take steps to protect your health. Keep reading for symptoms of poor air quality and tips for staying healthy, even when air quality is bad.
Health symptoms of poor outdoor air quality
Poor air quality in your neighborhood or city is bad news for your respiratory health. Even slight exposure can cause symptoms. Some people are affected more severely than others including:
- Infants and young children
- Elderly people
- People with asthma, COPD, or other respiratory illness
- People with allergies
That said, everyone is susceptible to the health effects of poor air quality. Symptoms can range from mild to severe. Some of the most common health symptoms of outdoor air pollution include:
- Shortness of breath
- Sinus congestion
- Increased sensitivity to allergens
- Dryness and irritation of the eyes, nose, throat, and skin
How to stay healthy when air quality is poor
It’s one thing to eliminate pollutants from your home but you have little control over outdoor air quality. You’re probably wondering how it’s possible to protect yourself and your loved ones when air quality is poor. While it’s true that you can’t rid the world (or even your city) of pollution entirely, there are steps you can take to protect your health.
Tips for protecting your health from air pollution
- Each day, check AirNow for your area to get your air quality report.
- If air quality is poor, avoid exercising or doing any strenuous activities outdoors.
- If you are more vulnerable to illness from air pollution, stay indoors as much as possible.
- Use the recycle air button on your car to avoid pulling in outdoor pollutants,
- Look at the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America report for worst cities for asthma, which indicates that there is poor air quality. Is your city on the list? If so, take extra care to avoid outdoor activities.
- Monitor any symptoms you have. If they persist or get worse, see a doctor.
- If you have asthma, be sure to take your medication as prescribed to help avoid worsened symptoms.
- Book a same-day appointment at urgent care if you’re experiencing symptoms of poor air quality. A doctor at urgent care will be able to advise steps to take for your personal situation and prescribe medicine to help manage symptoms, if necessary.