You’ve probably seen a lot on the news lately about air quality alerts. What does this mean for you or an older loved one? Should you avoid going outside? Wear a mask? Or take other precautionary measures, either in your own home or those you care for?
The answer is yes, you should be taking steps to ensure your safety and health, but it depends on the specific situation, including how unhealthy the air is and whether or not you have any underlying health concerns that might make the air more dangerous for you.
We’re going to cover exactly what an air quality alert is, what to watch for, and what to do to stay safe and healthy. It turns out, there are a lot of things you can do to safeguard your home and loved ones like children, spouses or pets.
What is an Air Quality Alert?
Air quality alerts are based on the Air Quality Index (AQI), which is a scale maintained by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The scale runs from 0 to 500. Higher AQI values are more dangerous and unhealthy.
The scale measures a range of toxic pollutants such as ozone, carbon monoxide and other particulates from fires, explosions, car exhaust and other sources.
When air quality reaches a certain level, local, regional or statewide agencies will often release alerts for specific locations. Increasingly, you’ll even see air quality updates on your local news during the weather report.
Here is a brief rundown of the scale, which you can also find at the government’s Air Now website:
- Green (Good Air Quality) - 0 to 50
- Yellow (Moderate Air Quality) - 51 to 100
- Orange (Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups) - 101 to 150
- Red (Unhealthy) - 151 to 200
- Purple (Very Unhealthy) - 201 to 300
- Maroon (Hazardous) - 301+
It’s rare to see maroon or even purple alerts, but red and even orange alerts can put people at risk.
This is especially true for older adults, or those with respiratory conditions that might become worse with poor air quality.
Now that you know what an air quality alert is and how to interpret the quality ranges, let’s talk about how you can find out your own area’s air quality.
What Is the Air Quality Near Me Right Now?
It’s relatively simple to find your local air quality. The EPA has set up Air Now, a site dedicated to monitoring and tracking air quality throughout the country.
There, you can find the air quality for your zip code or region, see the location of fires, and even get a predicted forecast of air quality in the coming days.
The Effects of Wildfires
While a larger discussion of wildfires is outside the scope of this article, wildfires hundreds of miles away can still affect your air quality.
In recent years, wildfires in Arizona, California and Canada have spread toxic smoke throughout large portions of the US. At times, this has extended all the way to the east coast, with states like Pennsylvania and New York getting the worst of it.
Simply put, these environmental events affect more than just the area they’re happening in. You or a loved one could be negatively affected by something half a continent away. So it’s important to stay informed, even when your region doesn’t normally have poor air quality.
Staying Safe During Air Quality Alerts
If the air quality is good or moderate, chances are you don’t have to worry about doing your daily activities.
But even an Orange alert comes with the warning that the air is “unhealthy for sensitive groups.” This is also when you may start to notice a haze in the air, one that isn’t fog or debris.
This could be car exhaust fumes, industrial fumes, wildfire smoke, or a number of other causes. But the result is the same.
Weather.gov recommends the following safety tips:
- Stay informed, and listen to the National Weather Service Radio broadcast or local news station.
- Stay inside if possible.
- Limit activities that take you outdoors or outside your home.
- Try not to use things that create more pollution, such as cars or gas-powered lawn mowers.
- Don’t burn debris or other items.
Your first steps might be as simple as not using your fire pit that you typically enjoy on the weekends, or pushing off errands and staying in your home for a couple of days. These can go a long way toward keeping you safe. It also avoids contributing to the problem.
What About Wearing a Mask?
If you’re following the guidelines above, you won’t be leaving your home much during air quality alerts. But if you need to, should you wear a mask?
Experts do recommend masks to keep particulates from entering the lungs and bloodstream. Traditional “dust masks” don’t cut it though. The EPA recommends N-95 masks or P100 respirators. Other types of masks can prevent larger particles from entering your lungs, but will be incomplete in their protection.
Other common tips for selecting a mask include finding one that fits snugly over your nose and mouth, and ensuring that you can still breathe easily while wearing the mask. Masks with filters are often better than those without, and it’s important to understand the types of masks and what they’re designed to combat.
Who Should Wear a Mask?
- Those with respiratory conditions: This includes people with asthma, COPD, and other lung diseases. These conditions can make people more vulnerable to the effects of air pollution, so it is important for them to take steps to protect their lungs.
- People who have cardiovascular conditions: Air pollution can also irritate the lining of the blood vessels, which can lead to heart problems. People with cardiovascular conditions, such as heart disease and stroke, are at increased risk of these complications, so they should also take steps to protect their lungs.
- Older adults: Older adults are more likely to have respiratory and cardiovascular conditions, so they are also at increased risk of the effects of air pollution.
- Children: Children's lungs are still developing, so they are more susceptible to the effects of air pollution.
- People who are pregnant: Air pollution can also cross the placenta and affect the development of the fetus, so pregnant women should also take steps to protect their lungs.
- People who are active outdoors: People who are active outdoors are more likely to breathe in more polluted air. This is because they are breathing more deeply and taking in more air overall.
If you are in an area with air-quality alerts, it is a good idea to wear a mask outdoors, even if you are not in one of the high-risk groups. A mask can help to filter out some of the pollutants in the air, which can help to protect your lungs.
You can find masks at most drugstores and online retailers.
As with any of this, wearing a mask is a personal decision, and also can depend on your personal health concerns and exactly how poor the air quality is. Use your best judgment to do what’s right for you.
Indoor Air Quality: Keeping Your Home Healthy
There’s a lot you can do inside your home to stay healthy as well. In-home care is important regardless of the air quality, but when alerts happen, there are additional precautionary measures you can take.
When the weather is nice, it’s often great to open your windows and let the fresh air in! However, when there are air quality alerts, this can be actively harmful to your health.
Instead, there are a few ways you can rely on indoor air quality products and tips to ensure that your home is the healthiest and safest place for you to be during an air quality alert.
Furnace Filters and Running Your HVAC
The filter in a central air heating and cooling system captures a lot of particulates that you would be breathing in otherwise. Higher-grade filters - such as those with the HEPA distinction - can even capture many bacteria and virus particles!
As such, it’s important to run your system frequently during air quality alerts so that the filter is being put to use and keeping your air clean.
If it’s not hot or cold enough to run your air conditioning or heating, most systems have a “fan only” mode, which lets you run air through your home even if it isn’t being heated or cooled. At a minimum, you should be running this fan during air quality alerts.
And while it should go without saying, this also means that you or someone you trust have to replace your system’s filter on its recommended schedule. Otherwise, it will stop working properly and simply clog up your ductwork with dust and other debris.
Whole-home air purifiers exist that can do even more for your home, but they’re often expensive, running hundreds or even thousands of dollars to install and maintain.
More commonly, air purifiers can be purchased that will easily cover a single room or area of your home.
If you find yourself having trouble breathing during air quality alerts, or coughing frequently, it may be worth purchasing one of these purifiers and setting it up in your bedroom, or wherever you spend a lot of time. Keeping it running while you sleep can help immensely to sleep better and maintain your energy.
Humidity in Your Home
Most people don’t think about the humidity in their home when they think about having trouble breathing. But humidity plays a factor in this.
Dry air can lead to persistent coughs, and viruses also survive longer in dry air. This is why the dry winter months in some regions of the world are known as “flu season.”
Conversely, air that’s too humid can lead to lots of allergens and bacteria living in your home. If this is already a problem in your home, poor air quality will only make it worse.
Dehumidifiers and humidifiers can operate in individual rooms or across your entire home. They range from $20-$30 all the way up to thousands of dollars, depending on how large an area you wish to cover.
The exact “ideal” humidity varies depending on the source, but most experts agree that humidity levels between 30% and 60% are acceptable, with 40% to 50% being the most comfortable and safest year-round.
If you live on the coast and your air is always humid, you’ll never need a humidifier. Or if you’re in Arizona, you’ll likely never need a dehumidifier. But many people can benefit from at least one of these to help their home. If your home is consistently above or below these ranges, it might be time to look into humidity-controlling options for your home.
Breathe Easier: Ensure Your Health During Air Quality Alerts
Especially as you age, environmental stresses can contribute to your health and well-being. That’s why paying attention to air quality alerts can be so important.
Even among younger people, headaches, dizziness and persistent coughs can occur when exposed to poor air quality for any length of time.
We’ve seen an increase in air quality alerts in recent years, and this trend is unlikely to stop.
The tips and recommendations above exist to keep people safe and healthy, though, so you don’t need to guess about what to do. Stay informed, track your area’s air quality when there’s an alert, and take the proper precautions.
If you do this, you can continue to breathe easily, knowing that you’re minimizing the risk to your health as a result of air quality alerts.
Want more tips on staying active, healthy and happy as you age? Check out all of our health-related articles for even more advice that you can apply directly to your life!
About the Author
Working with subject matter experts in the health and long-term care fields, Mark covers a variety of topics and industries related to health and aging.
Contributor since July 19th, 2023
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