Air Quality Awareness Week

What Does Air Quality Mean for Your Exercise Routine?

By Alison Davis

We read or hear about it every day: exercise plays a critical role in keeping us healthy. So, what do you do when you want to exercise outside, but the air quality forecast is Code Orange – or higher? Does that mean you shouldn’t exert yourself outdoors?

Unless you’re looking for a reason to head for the couch, there’s good news. On most days, you can exercise outside – even if air quality isn’t the best. By using the Air Quality Index (AQI) to make simple changes to your workout plan, you can still get physical activity outdoors, while reducing the amount of pollution you take into your lungs.

If checking the AQI isn’t part of your daily routine, this is the perfect time to start. Air Quality Awareness Week is April 27 through May 1.

Join us at 1 p.m. EDT Thursday, April 30 for a Twitter chat about air quality and physical activity. EPA’s experts will be joined by experts from CDC, the National Weather Service and the National Park Service to answer your questions about how using the AQI can help you get the exercise you need to stay healthy when air quality is poor. Join the conversation: follow the #AirQualityChat hashtag @EPAlive, @CDCenvironment, @NWS, and @NPSair. If you don’t have a Twitter account, you can post your questions in the comments below and follow the #AirQualityChat hashtag during the chat. We look forward to talking with you!

About the author: Alison Davis is a Sr. Advisor for Public Affairs in EPA’s Office of Air Quality Planning & Standards.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Air Pollution and Your Brain

By Michelle Becker

Graphic depiction of the brainNext week is Air Quality Awareness week, which is a time to reflect on how far we have come in our understanding of the health effects of air pollution. We know air quality can affect the lungs and heart and cause serious health problems, as documented in a large body of scientific literature. However, we don’t know very much about the potential effects on the brain.

That is why EPA supports research through its Science to Achieve Results (STAR) grant program to further examine potential health effects of air pollution. The Clean Air Research Center (CLARC) at Harvard University receives funds from EPA to explore the health effects of air pollution mixtures across organ systems and during various stages of human life.

Recently, the center published a study in the journal Stroke that looked at what may happen to the brain of older adults after long-term exposure to fine particle pollution (PM2.5), which is emitted from tail pipe emissions as well as other sources. The study included 943 individuals over the age of 60 with no history of dementia or stroke. They also lived within 1,000 meters (0.62 miles) of a major roadway where levels of air pollutants are generally higher.

Researchers looked at pictures of the brain using a technique called Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) to identify the differences in certain brain structures. Then they considered the pictures in connection with the distance participants lived from a major road.

After considering all the data and a number of other factors that might affect the brain, the researchers found that exposure to outdoor PM2.5 was associated with a decrease in total cerebral brain volume and an increase in covert brain infarcts (known as “silent” strokes because there are no outward symptoms). The impact of being close to roadways was less clear.

So what are the potential implications? A decrease in cerebral brain volume is an indicator of degeneration of the brain, which can lead to dementia and other cognitive impairments. Also, an increase in covert brain infarcts increases a person’s risk for a major stroke.

To give you a better idea about PM2.5 (particulate matter of 2.5 microns in diameter) the average human hair has a diameter of 100 microns. So these air pollutant mixtures are roughly one quarter the diameter of a single hair on your head. That is to say, very small. Yet these small particles pack a big punch when it comes to our health. The study demonstrates an increase of just 2 micrograms per cubic meter can cause brain deterioration.

This study is one of the first to look at the relationship between air pollution and the brain so the evidence is suggestive. The study contributes to a growing body of scientific research that is exploring the cognitive connections to air pollution. So this week while we think about air quality, let’s remember that small things can make a big impact and that science can help us to learn more about air quality and our health.

About the Author: Michelle Becker, M.S, is currently working with the Air, Climate, and Energy research program in EPA’s Office of Research and Development through a Skills Marketplace opportunity. The project has allowed her to increase her scientific communication skills and to learn more about EPA funded research to protect human health.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Check Your AQI IQ: It’s Air Quality Awareness Week

After the winter that felt like it would not end, the weather is finally warming up in many parts of the country. And now that we can get outside without freezing, many of us are exercising more and sending our children out to play, a step that’s great for improving our health. But there’s another step we can take to protect our health, and this week is the perfect time to start: That’s paying attention to air quality.

This week is Air Quality Awareness Week  – the week each spring when we join with our partners at the CDC, NOAA and at state, local and tribal air agencies to remind people to use the Air Quality Index (AQI)  to reduce their exposure to air pollution. Even for those of us who check air quality regularly, this is a good time to refresh our knowledge of how to use the AQI to plan our outdoor activities. When air quality is good – get outside and play or exercise. When it’s not, change the type or length of your activity, or plan it for a day or time when air quality is expected to be better. More

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

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How Many Breaths Do You Take Each Day?

By Ann Brown

Map of U.S. with color-coded air quality index

It’s Air Quality Awareness Week!

Watching the news and the problems that some countries are having with high levels of air pollution makes me appreciate the Clean Air Act, which calls on EPA and the states to protect air quality through programs based on the latest science and technology. I am especially appreciative today, the first day of Air Quality Awareness Week.

When I joined EPA’s Office of Research and Development 16 years ago, I didn’t think much about the quality of the air I breathe. I took it for granted. It is an unlimited supply. I don’t have to pay a monthly bill for it. It is just there for the benefit of my body.

Then as I began to work with scientists and engineers conducting air research at EPA, I gained an appreciation for this precious resource.  Their research showed me why it is important to know what is in the air, how you can be exposed to any pollutants it contains, and what the related risks and health effects might be. I’ve also learned about their work on advancing control technologies to reduce air pollution. EPA scientists are working in all these areas to provide the science that can be used to protect air quality.

The average person takes between 17,280 and 23,040 breaths a day. That is a lot of breaths…and each one is an opportunity to put pollutants into your lungs and body and to increase health risks if you are exposed to air pollution. For example:

  • Research shows that air pollution is linked to health effects and disease, including heart disease and stroke. EPA is a partner in the Million Hearts initiative to educate the public, especially those with heart disease, about the dangers of air pollution to their health. You can learn more about air pollution and heart disease at www.epagov/healthyheart.
  • Air pollution can cause or worsen asthma. Extensive research links asthma to ozone, particle pollution and a host of common indoor environmental asthma triggers. Join EPA experts to discuss asthma and outdoor air pollution on a Twitter chat on May 1 at 2 p.m. (Eastern Time) on @EPALive. Use the hashtag #asthma.

Air quality awareness week is a good time to learn what you can do to protect your health and the health of your friends and family. Many resources are available to learn about air quality and how to protect your health. A good start is to use the Air Quality Index where you can get daily local air quality reports and information to protect your health from air pollution.

Scientists continue to investigate air quality to protect our health and the environment. I’m glad to be a small part of this effort. Learn more about what scientists are doing at www.epa.gov/airscience.

About the author: Ann Brown is the communications lead for EPA’s Air, Climate, and Energy Research Program.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Science Wednesday: Modeling Matters

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection. Previous Science Wednesdays.

By Tanya Otte

Did you know that it’s Air Quality Awareness Week?

If you did, that’s great!  If not, that’s OK, too.  With so many “awareness weeks” out there, it’s hard to be aware of them all.  Keeping this in mind, and recognizing that awareness of any issue should not be limited to one week of the year, my colleagues and I in EPA’s Atmospheric Modeling and Analysis Division are launching a periodic feature to help keep you informed of air quality research that may affect your life.

Our feature is called “Modeling Matters.”  You’ll find us here in Greenversations as occasional contributors on Science Wednesdays.  “Modeling Matters” is a triple entendre.  As environmental scientists, we are interested in the behavior of solids, liquids, and gases in the atmosphere, and in their translations between those states, so we are actively modeling different types of matter.  In addition, we plan to use this forum to discuss issues that are important to environmental modeling, so these are modeling matters.  Finally, my colleagues and I believe it is imperative to simulate complex interactions occurring every day in the atmosphere with scientific credibility, and therefore modeling matters to us.

We hope you’ll find that modeling matters to you, too.

We are committed to providing honest, scientifically sound glimpses into our work and how it may affect you.  My colleagues and I are regular people with normal jobs, and we are fully aware of our charge to serve the public.  We’re the ones rolling up our sleeves and making the changes to improve the models that influence some big decisions on environmental issues.    Sometimes we work on controversial scientific topics.

Our primary goal for “Modeling Matters” is to inform you of the role that our models play in protecting human health and the environment.  We hope you’ll even learn a few things about how our models work.  If you have something you’d like to add to the discussion or a topic you’d like to see addressed, we’d love to hear from you!  We hope you’ll be back next week for our first full-feature blog post.

About the author:  Tanya Otte has a career in modeling that does not involve runways in New York or Paris.  She is a research physical scientist and has worked at EPA in atmospheric modeling and analysis since 1998.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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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

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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New Picture Book Teaches Kids about Air Quality

By Melissa Payne

We’re big readers in our house. With two small children always looking for something to do, reading is easy, fun, and lets Mommy (and Daddy) sit down for a minute. Recently, we’ve started getting into books that correspond to the seasons- books about falling leaves in autumn, snow and holidays in the wintertime, and planting seeds in the spring. We can now add another season to our repertoire- ozone season- which lasts from May until October.

“Why is Coco Orange?” is a new book about a chameleon with asthma who can’t change colors. He and his friends at Lizard Lick Elementary solve this mystery as they learn about air quality and how to stay healthy and active when the air quality is a concern. This picture book explains the concept of ozone to young children in a way that they can understand. My kids keep coming back to this book, and find something new to learn every time.

Parents, teachers and other caretakers will learn along with the children as they read this story together. Schools, libraries, doctors’ offices, and families can take advantage of the book–it’s free to order your copy. With Earth Day (Friday, April 22) and Air Quality Awareness Week (May 2-6) coming up, now is the time to place your order. Celebrate the return of warmer weather with Coco and his healthy tips. Happy reading!

For more information on air quality, please visit airnow.gov

About the author: Melissa Payne has worked at EPA Headquarters since 1997, and currently works on air quality rule implementation.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Air Quality Awareness Week: Thanks, George

About the author: Alison Davis is Senior Adviser for Public Affairs in EPA’s Office of Air Quality Planning & Standards in Research Triangle Park, NC.

With our weather in North Carolina getting suddenly hot, I’ve been thinking more about how air quality affects my daily plans. And I realized that I’d never learned the nitty-gritty of what goes in to that “Code Orange” forecast I get when air quality is expected to worsen.

image of George Bridgers, AQI forcaster, sitting at desk with his computerSo the other day, I stopped by the N.C. Division of Air Quality (DAQ) to see George. George (his last name is Bridgers) is one of four meteorologists at the DAQ who issue the daily air quality forecasts that tell me whether ozone levels might make me wheeze – or whether I’m in the clear.

From what I’ve picked up during my years at EPA, I know that forecasters at state and local agencies nationwide use weather models, information on pollution and their own experience to predict the next day’s ozone and particle pollution levels. So I went to see George figuring a forecast would take just an hour or two.

Boy, was I wrong.

“It starts from the moment I wake up,” George told me. “Are there storms I didn’t expect? Is the wind blowing? Is it sunny?”

Turns out George doesn’t just issue the next day’s forecast; he also spends time checking to see if yesterday’s forecast held overnight. If anything changed — weather conditions being the most likely — he might need to issue an update. Plus, what happened yesterday affects air quality tomorrow. During a period of stagnant weather, for example, pollution can build up over several days – and the forecast can go from yellow to orange to red.

Once George is satisfied that yesterday’s forecast was good, he starts looking at a long list of tools to develop tomorrow’s forecast. Weather forecast models. Satellite images. Air monitoring data. Models that estimate how pollution travels on the air. It’s an impressive list that reminds that me of just how much the nearly 300 air quality forecasters across the country have to understand in order issue AQI forecasts every day.

But I’m most struck by George’s dedication. He still remembers sweating it out over a code purple forecast he issued years ago, for example – and how worried he was about getting it right.

So when you check your air quality forecast (and you will, right?), know that in nearly every state, there are people like George, using science, experience and dedication to help you protect your health.

April 27 – May 1 is Air Quality Awareness Week.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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