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Summer is the season to get outdoors and enjoy some fresh air. Yet it's also (oh, cruel irony!) when air pollution peaks in many regions and makes that fresh air hard to find. How should we deal when our city is having a bad air day?
First the good news: there's a whole lot less air pollution than there used to be. According to the EPA, concentrations of the major outdoor air pollutants have fallen dramatically in the last several decades. Carbon monoxide, for example, is down 82% since 1980. Ozone has dropped 28%. And particulates are off 29% since 2000.
That's not to say we're in the clear. The American Lung Association’s new 2013 State of the Air Report finds that more than 4 in 10 of us live in places where pollution frequently makes the air a gamble to breathe. Los Angeles yet again wins the dubious award for the smoggiest air while Bakersfield, California ranks an unfortunate #1 for particulate matter.
The cleanest air is enjoyed by the good people of Cheyenne, Wyoming and Ames, Iowa, but nearly 132 million other Americans live in counties with unhealthy levels of either ozone or particulate pollution. Here's what to do if you’re one of them:
First, keep abreast of local conditions. The EPA converts data from 2,531 nationwide monitoring stations into daily Air Quality Index (AQI) forecasts and hourly reports for virtually every city and/or region in the country. AQI scores range from 0 ("Good") to a lung-paving 500 ("Hazardous"). Know where your air currently falls on the scale. If it scores 100 or higher, experts say three steps will protect healthy adults and children:
- Stay inside as much as possible.
- Restrict your outdoor activities to early morning or after dusk. Air pollution rises during daylight hours as human activity produces particulates and other pollutants, and sunlight reacts with nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds, and carbon monoxide in the air to form toxic ozone, the primary component of smog.
- Avoid strenuous outdoor exercise or other overexertion—the more rapidly and deeply you inhale, the more pollution you’re breathing.
In addition, here are some further steps we can take:
- Get your Cs. Research conducted at Imperial College London found that on high air pollution days, people with low levels of vitamin C in their bodies were more likely to be hospitalized, and other studies have linked antioxidants like vitamin C to improved lung performance and less cell damage.
- Wear an N95 face mask. Unlike ordinary paper and medical masks, these filter out fine airborne particles (a.k.a. air pollution) larger than 0.3 microns but only if the mask fits tightly around the face with no gaps.
Keep in mind, that everyone’s "resistance" to air pollutions is different. The elderly, children, asthmatics, and those with pre-existing health conditions are most vulnerable to its effects and may require stronger precautions at lower AQI scores than healthy individuals. Your mileage may vary, but one thing is for sure: it’s never a mistake to do whatever we can in life to breathe a little easier!
Photo: Steven Buss