Air Quality Index

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 Quality and Your Summer Vacation Outdoors

by Susan Stone

Air quality in the United States has improved considerably.  But, summertime air quality can still reach the unhealthy ranges of the Air Quality Index (AQI) – even in remote locations such as our beautiful national parks. Picture this: you’re camping in Great Smoky Mountains National Park (one of my favorites). You’re ready to take your kids hiking for the day, and you see a sign announcing a park-wide ozone advisory.

ozone

One of your teenagers has asthma. What can you do?

The first step is to check the daily AQI. I check the AQI forecast and current conditions before any hike by entering the zip code into the free AirNow app on my phone. In a national park, you can check with the park rangers if you don’t have the app.  Then use the AQI to help decide whether to change or restrict your activities — something that’s especially important if you’re in a group at greater risk from ozone exposure.

For example, when my children were younger, I didn’t take them on long hikes if ozone levels were Code Orange or above. Children, including teenagers, are considered to be at greater risk from ozone because their lungs are still developing. And children with asthma are at the greatest risk because ozone can cause or increase inflammation in airways.

Asthma is a disease characterized by airway inflammation. It’s this inflammation that can trigger an asthma attack, and it’s inflammation that your child’s asthma action plan is designed to prevent or limit. As ozone levels increase from Code Orange to Code Red on the AQI, it’s more important to limit prolonged, or strenuous, outdoor activities. Take more rest breaks and always pay attention to symptoms. This same approach ensures that kids can engage in outdoor activities safely at school, while still encouraging them to achieve the recommended 60 or more minutes of physical activity each day.

So, if today’s ozone AQI forecast in Great Smoky Mountains National Park is Code Red (unhealthy for everyone), the park ranger may recommend that your entire family avoid prolonged, intense activities today and engage in activities at the more sheltered, lower elevation areas of the park rather than the exposed ridgetops. You could plan your more strenuous hike for the next day, when the ozone forecast is Code Yellow. If you were planning to hike the Alum Cave Bluff Trail on the way to Mt. LeConte, a moderately strenuous trail that rises 2,900 feet to 6,400 feet, you could change your plans to visit Cades Cove, a broad valley that offers the widest variety of historic buildings in the park.

cove

Walking around the historical sites in the valley would allow your family to continue enjoying your outdoor vacation, but keep activity levels low enough to avoid unhealthy air pollution exposures.

Check your daily AQI and download the free AirNow app: www.airnow.gov

About the author: Susan Stone is a Senior Environmental Health Scientist who likes to hike, especially in national parks and North Carolina state parks. Her most recent national parks visit was to Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. She checked the AQI as part of her hiking plans and had a great time.

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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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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Are Your Genes Making You Susceptible to Air Pollution?

 

Healthy Heart graphic identifier

 

By Ann Brown

Smoking, high-fat diets and a couch potato lifestyle are risk factors for heart disease.  Kicking the habit, changing your diet and exercising are ways to reduce those risks and enhance quality of life.

But there may be a risk factor for heart disease that is more complicated to address: our genes. Our genetic makeup that we inherit from our parents may contribute to the development of heart disease, but our genes may also play a role in how our cardiovascular system responds to air pollution.  

We all have the same set of genes, but there are subtle differences in the makeup of those genes that vary from one person to another.  These individual variations are called polymorphisms and have been shown to make some people more susceptible to things like breast cancer or diabetes. 

Research has shown that high levels of air pollution, particularly fine particles emitted by cars, trucks, factories and wildfires, can trigger heart attacks and worsen heart symptoms in people who have heart disease. But are some people with heart disease more responsive to high levels of air pollution than others because of their genes?  

EPA researchers and collaborators are investigating the contributions genes may have in the way individuals respond to air pollution exposure. The study is made possible by tapping into a unique database of genetic and clinical information called CATHGEN, developed by Duke University Medical Center. The database contains health information from nearly 10,000 volunteers, most who have been diagnosed with cardiovascular disease. 

The database is providing an opportunity for EPA and other environmental health researchers to ask whether specific genetic variations make people more susceptible to the damaging effects of air pollution on the heart. While people cannot change their genetic make-up, it is hoped that the knowledge gained from this research can one day be used by health care providers to educate their patients with heart disease. Heart patients don’t have to wait for more research to take action, however.

EPA recommends people who are more sensitive to air pollution, such as those with heart disease, take steps to reduce their exposure during times when pollution levels are higher. You can check current and forecasted air quality conditions at www.airnow.gov.

Learn more at: epa.gov/healthyheart

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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Healthy Hearts and Clean Air: An EPA Science Story

 

Healthy Heart graphic identifier

 

Reposted from EPA Connect, the Official Blog of EPA Leadership

By Lek Kadeli

This month is American Heart Health Month. I invite you to join me in understanding how EPA scientists and their partners are learning how to better protect a group of citizens who are among the most at risk from poor air quality: those who suffer from heart and other cardiovascular diseases.

Our researchers have made important discoveries linking the impact of poor air quality on cardiovascular health. For example, EPA scientists Robert Devlin, Ph.D., and David Diaz-Sanchez and their colleagues published one of the first studies looking at the effects of ozone exposure on heart health. They discovered a link between breathing ozone and inflammation, and changes in heart rate variability, and proteins that dissolve blood clots that could be risk factors for people with heart disease.

Drs. Devlin and Diaz-Sanchez, along with EPA cardiologist Dr. Wayne Cascio, are part of an Agency effort to spread the word about the results of EPA clean air research. We will be highlighting those efforts on the Agency’s science blog, It All Starts with Science, on our science Twitter feed @EPAresearch, and elsewhere as part of our Healthy Heart Month activities.

Read the rest of the post. 

 

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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Air Quality Awareness Week: EPA Clean Air Science

By Maggie Sauerhage

Recess at last!

Impatiently, you watch the second hand tick, tick, tick around the clock. Is it possible that it’s slowing down? Finally, it hits the 12 and you hear that magical sound: RRRRING! It’s time for recess! You jump out of your seat, knocking over your chair, and run to freedom alongside your classmates. Throwing the doors open, you’re welcomed by the warm glow of sunshine and the scent of grass, flowers, and blacktop. Taking a deep breath, you fill your lungs with air before running off to join friends in a game of kickball, tag, or to see who can swing highest.

Recess was one of the best parts of my day when I was younger. I was lucky. As reported recently in The New York Times, many kids in China’s cities often have to stay indoors because of high levels of air pollution. Teachers there check the U.S. Consulate’s website or their own government’s website for an air quality reading, to make sure it’s safe for children to go outside.

While air pollution levels in the United States are significantly lower, many cities still have days when the air pollution exceeds what is considered healthy, especially for certain at-risk populations such as those already dealing with asthma or cardiovascular problems (also see EPA’s Green Heart initiative). That’s why EPA scientists are conducting air research and learning how to keep us healthy.

EPA’s National Ambient Air Quality Standards—for six principal pollutants—were developed to help protect human health and the environment. EPA scientists study how the six pollutants are formed, the ways they interact in the atmosphere, and their impacts.

The Clean Air Act requires EPA researchers to periodically review the science behind these standards to ensure the latest findings are used to inform efforts to protect human health and the einvironment. These reviews include scientific assessments of all the existing research on each pollutant.

Scientists must also closely monitor daily levels of pollutants in the air to make sure they aren’t unhealthy. They’ve developed models that are used by the National Weather Service to give daily U.S. ozone forecasts, and states use them to make sure they are complying with clean air standards.

All of this research helps EPA calculate the Air Quality Index (AQI) each day to inform the public of air quality in their neighborhood. The AQI is an easy-to-use table that’s color-coded to match levels of air pollution. The scale goes from 0-500, and the higher the value, the more harmful the level of pollution. To check your air quality forecast, all you have to do is enter your zip code. You can also download an app for your phone to check air quality on the go.

Unfortunately, I’ve outgrown recess. But air quality is still as important to me as it is to the millions of kids who depend on clean air to go outside and play with their friends. So don’t forget to check the AQI next time you want to enjoy the great outdoors!

About the Author: Maggie Sauerhage is a student services contractor working on the Science Communications Team in EPA’s Office of Research and Development.

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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Air Quality Awareness Week: Greener Hearts Result in a More Enjoyable Summer

By Dr. Wayne Cascio

I was pleased to see that the American Lung Association’s annual “State of the Air” report notes that the country’s air is getting cleaner—a perfect way to kick off Air Quality Awareness Week (April 29 through May 3). The report, based on EPA findings from 2009 through 2011, should not only indicate a healthier U.S. public, but also a savings of billions of dollars in reduced medical costs.

As an EPA environmental health researcher, cardiologist, and promoter of our Green Heart initiative to raise awareness of the links between air quality and cardiovascular health, it was rewarding to note the many Agency efforts that have contributed to the improved state of the country’s air quality.

EPA has lead many research efforts to examine the effects of environmental irritants—such as dust, smoke, and smog (which is most prevalent during the approaching summer months)—in the air. Our studies have resulted in recommendations on actions that people predisposed to asthma and heart-related diseases can take to protect their health.

One valuable tool is EPA’s color-coded Air Quality Index, which provides guidelines for at-risk individuals for

School Flag Program

being outdoors or exercising in relation to air quality. A similar program has been introduced at local schools called the School Flag Program. The colored flags displayed on school yard flagpoles alert students, teachers, coaches and the community to the air quality forecast for the day.

According to 2010 EPA data (the most recent year available), benefits from improved air quality helped to avoid 1.7 million asthma attacks and reduced hospital admissions and emergency room visits significantly. Such impacts also yield major savings of medical expenses across the country.

So, as we enter the summer season when air quality issues are common, remember to acquaint yourself with the Air Quality Index and other EPA tools, rely on their guidance to assist you in staying well, and enjoy your summer!

About the Author: Wayne E. Cascio, MD is the Director of EPA’s Environmental Public Health Division, a Clinical Professor of Medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and a Fellow of the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology. His research explores the effects of air pollution on the heart and blood vessels.

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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Green Heart: Spreading the Word about Air Pollution and Your Health

By Kathy Sykes

When I moved to Washington DC from my native Madison, Wisconsin, I missed the clean air that I had taken for granted.  Summers in DC with sweltering temperatures and “Ozone Action Days” made it feel difficult to breathe just walking to work.  On those days, a song kept playing in my head, “Pollution,” by satirist Tom Lehrer.

“Pollution, pollution, Wear a gas mask and a veil. Then you can breathe, long as you don’t inhale.”

I couldn’t see the harmful air pollution, but it weighed heavy on my chest on my daily jogs around Capitol Hill.   Even though my work at the time (for the Senate Aging Committee) included health issues, I never worked on raising awareness about air pollutants and their serious harmful effects on older adults, especially those living with heart disease.

That’s changed now that I’m at EPA, where I serve on the Federal Interagency Forum on Aging-Related Statistics. Periodically, the Forum publishes a chart book of key indicators of well-being, including an indicator on air quality and older adults.

In 2012, the Forum released its fourth update on air quality and demonstrated progress made overtime with respect to the two most harmful air pollutants for older adults: PM 2.5 (also known as particulate matter), and ozone.  The chart book shows (click on the link for Indicator 27) the percent of people living in counties with air pollutants above the EPA health-based standards.

Each state monitors air quality and reports it to EPA.  The EPA then determines whether air pollutant measurements are above health standards.  In 2002, nearly half of the population lived in counties with poor air pollution. By 2010, about 40% of our population lived in a county with poor air quality for some period that year.

While we are making progress, more work remains to be done.

Another federal collaborative effort I devote my time to is the National Prevention Strategy (NPS) that was created as part of the Affordable Care Act.   Seventeen federal agencies work together to look at what we can do to advance health prevention.

Led by Surgeon General Regina Benjamin, each federal agency announced commitment areas as part of the NPS.  One of EPA’s is through the Green Heart initiative which strives to educate people about air pollution and how they can reduce their exposure on poor air quality days.

The Green Heart initiative complements the Million Heart Campaign, an initiative by the Department of Health and Human Services to prevent a million heart attacks over five years.  The Green Heart Initiative has a simple message for people with cardiovascular disease: check the Air Quality Index and reduce your activity on days when the air quality is not good.

There is even an app that will notify you when the air quality is unhealthy. A fact sheet, Environmental Hazards Weigh Heavy on the Heart, for older adults and their caregivers can be ordered on-line on EPA’s Aging web page.

While there are still counties where air pollution is an issue, I’m glad to know there are actions we can take to protect our heart health.

About the Author: Kathy Sykes has been working for the EPA since 1998 where she focuses on older adults and the built environment and healthy communities.  In 2012, she joined the Office of Research and Development and serves as Senior Advisor for Aging and Sustainability.

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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Green Heart: Will you be mine?

By Aaron Ferster

As a husband and the father of two girls, I am a big fan of Valentine’s Day. The cards. Heart-shaped boxes of chocolate. Flowers. Maybe even an evening glass of bubbly (or two) once the kids are in bed.  Looking around the crowded metro car on my way to work this morning, it was obvious I’m not the only one. More than a few folks were carrying bouquets, or boxes filled with velvet-icing-topped cupcakes. And everyone was wearing red.

It’s no wonder that public health organizations across the country have picked February—the month marked by Valentine’s Day—to make wearing red a reminder of the importance of heart health. American Heart Month is a call to action to raise awareness about what we all can do to prevent heart disease, the country’s number one cause of death for men and women.

There is a growing awareness of several simple, important steps we can take in that regard: don’t smoke, get regular exercise, and watch our diets.

EPA researchers and their partners have illuminated links between environmental factors, specifically air pollution, and heart disease. Theirs’ and others’ studies show that exposure to air pollution can trigger heart attacks and strokes, especially for those people with cardiovascular disease.

To help spread the word about these findings and actions people can take to lower their health risks, EPA recently launched the Green Heart initiative.  For example, one important action is to regularly check the Air Quality Index (AQI) forecast for your community. AQI is EPA’s color-coded tool for showing air quality, illustrating how clean or polluted your local air is. It also provides recommendations for steps to reduce your exposure, such as:

  • If you  have heart disease, are an older adult, or have other risk factors for heart disease, take steps to reduce your exposure when the AQI forecast is at code orange or above. These can include reducing your activity level (for example, walk instead of jog), exercising indoors, or postponing your workout or other activity for when the air quality is better.
  • Avoid exercising near busy roads if possible. (This is always a good idea.)
  • And most critical, if you feel symptoms of a heart attack or stroke, stop and seek medical help immediately!

While the Agency, states and tribes are taking actions to reduce air pollution by moving ahead with stronger emission controls on vehicles and industry and more protective air quality standards, there are steps people can take to reduce their own risks from air pollution.

Helping spread the word about what we can do to promote a healthier environment for our own hearts and those of our loved ones is a perfect way to celebrate Valentine’s Day. While I won’t skip picking up a box of chocolate on the way home, next year I think I’ll wear green!

About the Author: Aaron Ferster is the science writer for EPA’s Office of Research and Development, and the editor of “It All Starts with Science.”

Learn more!

Green Heart Initiative at http://www.epa.gov/greenheart/.
Follow us on Twitter at @EPAresearch

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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