Raising the Flag for Air Quality Awareness

Last week, I joined security officer William Jones when he visited a group of students at the First Environments Day Care Center located on EPA’s Research Triangle Park campus. The purpose of our trip was to raise a yellow flag on the pole in front of the school.

When Officer Jones asked if the kids wanted to help him, they cheered in unison, “YES.”  They eagerly held the flag while Officer Jones hooked it to the chain, watched as he raised it – and promptly asked why the flag was yellow. Officer Jones explained that the yellow flag meant that the kids could play outside, “because the air quality was pretty good today– not the best like what a green flag means.”

Schools in a number of areas across the country are raising the colored flags to help their teachers and parents track EPA’s daily Air Quality Index (AQI). These flags help students and teachers know what the air quality forecast is for the day, and help them track whether students’ asthma symptoms get worse when the air is polluted and whether they need to take extra steps to protect their health.

Later this week, the Bethesda Elementary School in Durham, N.C. will launch its school flag program as part of Air Quality Awareness Week, marked every May to remind Americans to check the AQI forecast in planning outdoor activities. The school will fly an air quality flag along with the American flag each day.

When you see a green or yellow flag at school, it means that teachers and coaches will encourage students to get outside and get moving!  When the flag is orange or red, it is still OK to play outside, but kids are encouraged to cut back on activities that involve lots of running.  On those days, teachers and coaches will also make indoor exercise space available for children who need it.

The flags also help parents by reminding them of the day’s air quality forecast when they drop their children off at school, and assuring them that teachers will reduce their children’s exposure to air pollution, while ensuring they get important play and exercise time.

Don’t have a flag program at your school? It’s easy to start one.

About the author: Amy J. Gaskill, APR, works in the Innovative Programs and Outreach Group in EPA’s Office of Air Quality Planning & Standards