By Bob Kelly
There are at least three levels of air quality data you can use in everyday life: neighborhood data, sidewalk data and right-where-you-are data. (Data from satellites are interesting, but not used so much on a day-to-day, hour-to-hour, personal level.)
‘Neighborhood’ data are from the air monitors run by the state air pollution agencies. You can get these data in within an hour or so of sampling from AirNOW.gov. Based on these data and weather conditions, state agencies forecast air quality alerts, when needed. Be alerted by signing up for email notifications from your state or via your state’s EnviroFlash.info page. Neighborhood data are often from rooftop locations since we need information on air pollution over large areas using the fewest monitors possible to efficiently spend taxpayer dollars. Neighborhood sites are often selected because they have air pollution concentrations similar to air pollution in other areas not monitored. This way, you get good quality data which gives an overview of air pollution across the city.
A second level of air quality data we can call ‘sidewalk’ data. Since pollution varies from your sidewalk compared to many other sidewalk locations, we would need hundreds of air quality sites to know what’s happening all the time. But special studies tell us what is happening at the sidewalk level. A good example of this is the New York City Community Air Survey. New York City uses special monitors for two weeks at a time, applying statistics to ‘fill in’ the areas between the neighborhood monitors. Even if you don’t live in New York City, use the information from this study to ‘fill in’ the areas between monitors in your location. Do you live near major highways, or a large boiler that combusts oil or gas (or wood)? This way, you can adapt neighborhood data to where you live, work or exercise.
A third level of air quality data is right-where-you-are data. Perhaps you have a portable air pollution sensor, as many do on their smartphones, to sample the air around you. As you learn where air pollution is highest, you can spend less time in locations with higher concentrations. You may even find cleaner places with your sensor. You can compare data from your sensor with neighborhood monitors and when air quality alerts are issued to find how widespread air pollution affects the where-you-are level. Most importantly, you can use all this information from every level with awareness of how you feel on any given day to learn what level of air quality affects your health. Is it harder to breathe on some days? Are your running times or amount of exercise you can do different as air pollution levels change?
Compare your health with air quality measurements from neighborhood monitors, information from sidewalk statistics and data from right-where-you-are to make your own decisions on where you’ll go today and what kind of exercise is best for your health today.
About the author: Bob is an air pollution meteorologist with the Air Programs Branch. He enjoys taking a few minutes from reviewing state air pollution cleanup plans to pass along the air quality forecasts to help keep people informed about what is happening in the air around them.