Telling Good Air from Bad

good air bad airAnyone with asthma knows that the outdoor air quality can have a big impact on breathing. If the air quality is bad, that alone can be an asthma trigger that sets off an attack. But did you know that even if you don't have asthma, you probably have someone in your family who would be harmed by outdoor air pollution? You need to know that the forecast for outdoor air pollution tells you a lot about protecting their health.  

Measuring Air Quality

Have you ever heard your local weather forecaster say that tomorrow will be a "code red" day for air pollution? That's the Air Quality Index (AQI). AQI is the system used to warn the public when air pollution is dangerous. The AQI tracks ozone (smog) and particle pollution (tiny particles from ash, vehicle exhaust, soil, dust, pollen and other pollution). Newspapers, radio, television and Web sites report AQI levels year-round. Keeping track of the current air quality information can help you take steps to protect your family from unhealthy levels of air pollution — especially for those with asthma.

For example, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and state and local agencies have combined to offer the AIRNOW website ( AIRNow provides easy access to national air quality information, with daily AQI conditions for more than 300 cities across the United States. You can also sign up at the site to get these alerts sent to you by e-mail or text message on your cell phone.

Know the Color Zones

Air pollution is particularly dangerous for children, people with asthma and other lung diseases, anyone over 65, and anyone who exercises or works outdoors or has diabetes or cardiovascular disease like high blood pressure, or has suffered a heart attack or stroke. Changing what you do on these bad days can reduce your risk of being harmed.

The AQI is divided into six color-code categories, each of which has a name, an associated color and advice to go along with it.

GREEN — Good; no advisories.

RED — Unhealthy; children, active adults and people with respiratory disease, such as asthma, should avoid prolonged outdoor exertion; everyone else should limit prolonged outdoor exertion.

YELLOW — Moderate; unusually sensitive individuals should consider limited prolonged outdoor exertion.

PURPLE — Very Unhealthy; children, active adults and people with respiratory disease, such as asthma, should avoid outdoor exertion; everyone else should limit outdoor exertion.

ORANGE — Unhealthy for sensitive groups; children, active adults and people with respiratory disease, such as asthma, should limit prolonged outdoor exertion.

MAROON — Hazardous; everyone should avoid all physical activity outdoors.

Those with asthma or with other lung diseases are all at particular risk when the air quality index is at Yellow, not just Orange or Red. You need to take steps to help protect yourself and your loved ones.

  • If the day's code level is Orange or worse, limit outdoor activities, even if you had planned outdoor recreation or work earlier.
  • Since exposure over extended periods of time is worse than shorter periods — especially with strenuous activities — keep any necessary outdoor exposure short
  • Avoid areas that are near high-traffic roadways, and do not exercise near those areas.
  • Let your local officials know that you are concerned about the effects of air pollution on you and your family and that you support stronger pollution control measures.

Source: Lung Health, The magazine of the American Lung Association.

FRESNO, Calif. — Lowering air pollution in Southern California and the San Joaquin Valley would save more lives annually than ending all motor vehicle fatalities in the two regions, according to a new study.

The study, which examined the costs of air pollution in two areas with the worst levels in the country, also said meeting federal ozone and fine particulate standards could save $28 billion annually in health care costs, school absences, missed work and lost income potential from premature deaths.

The price tag amounts to $1,600 annually per person in the San Joaquin Valley and $1,250 in the South Coast Air Basin.

Researchers at California State University-Fullerton sought to assess the potential economic benefits that could be achieved by reducing air pollution to levels within federal standards.

"For decades there has been a tug of war over what to do about air pollution," said Jane Hall, lead author of the study at Cal State Fullerton. "We are paying now for not having done enough."

To illustrate its point, the study noted that the California Highway Patrol recorded 2,521 vehicular deaths in the San Joaquin Valley and South Coast Air Basin in 2006, compared to 3,812 deaths attributed to respiratory illness caused by particulate pollution.

Studies have indicated a relationship between ozone and particulate pollution and asthma and other respiratory problems, including chronic bronchitis. They also have connected particulate pollution with an increase in cardiovascular problems.

Hall and colleague Victor Brajer analyzed ozone and fine particulate concentrations across the two basins in 5-by-5 kilometer grids from 2005 through 2007. The researchers applied those numbers to the health affects they are known to cause, then assigned peer-reviewed economic values to each illness or death that could result.

"It may be tempting to think California can't afford to clean up, but in fact dirty air is like a $28 billion lead balloon on our economy," Hall said.

The findings were released Wednesday as the California Air Resources Board considers controversial new regulations to reduce diesel truck emissions, a move that could cost 170,000 business owners $5.5 billion. According to a board staff report, the savings in health care costs would be $68 billion by 2020 if the regulations were adopted next month.

The Cal State Fullerton study says that particulate pollution levels must fall by 50 percent in both regions for health and economic benefits to occur, something they acknowledged would be "very difficult to achieve."

If pollution levels were to improve to federal standards, the study says residents of the two air basins would suffer 3,860 fewer premature deaths, 3,780 fewer nonfatal heart attacks and would miss 470,000 fewer days of work annually. School children would miss more than 1.2 million fewer days of school, a savings of $112 million in caregiver costs. There also would be more than 2 million fewer cases of upper respiratory problems.

"As a society we make decisions to spend money on things such as railroad crossings or air traffic control — things that improve safety," Brajer said. "There are a lot of ways society spends money to make things safer, and that's what we're trying to get at."

Source: Associated Press

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