Understanding The Air Quality Index And How To Assess Risks From Wildfire Smoke

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Updated, June 28: This article has been updated with new information since it was originally published on June 8.

Canada is experiencing the most extensive wildfire season on record, according to new reports. As blazes burn across provinces, the air pollution traveling down to the United States has once again set off air-quality alerts in several cities.

In particular, Chicago, Detroit and Milwaukee are getting the worst of the hazardous conditions, with more than 80 million people blanketed by smoke. Chicago specifically was determined the have the world’s worst air quality on Tuesday — level 228 on the Air Quality Index — with little improvement over 24 hours. Warnings have also been issued for New York, as the harshest conditions move east.

With so many areas under code red and purple conditions, how might this affect you and your family? Understanding what air-quality warnings and phone alerts mean is vital to the safety of those affected, particularly those with respiratory health conditions.

For real time information in your area, you can learn more by entering your zip code into the airnow.gov site.

For a daily updated map showing where fires are currently burning visit the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre.

The Air Quality Index (AQI) is a six-level color-coded classification system created by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Colors range from green (good) to maroon (hazardous), with worsening air quality indicating greater health risk. This also means a need to take increasingly greater precautions when possible.

Unhealthy air-quality levels include:

  • Orange AQI level (101-150): Unhealthy For Sensitive Groups

The general public is less likely to be affected by the poor air quality. But members of vulnerable groups may experience health effects and should remain indoors when possible.

  • Red AQI level (151-200): Unhealthy

Unhealthy for members of sensitive or vulnerable groups, with more serious health effects likely for these populations. Health effects are also possible for some members of the general public. Precautions should be taken by all, but those under 18, individuals who are pregnant, adults 65 and older and those with cardiovascular or lung disease should avoid exposure to the outdoors.

  • Purple AQI Level (201-300): Very Unhealthy

The risk of health effects is increased for everyone, and precautions should be taken by all.

  • Maroon AQI Level (301-500): Hazardous

This is a health warning of emergency conditions for the entire population. All individuals should stay indoors when possible, and if travel is required, a mask such as an N95 or KN95 should be worn for protection.

Ways To Protect Yourself When AQI Is Above 150

Even small amounts of exposure to poor air can be harmful to health. In both adults and children, it can worsen respiratory conditions such as asthma, emphysema and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. There have also been links to higher rates of hospital admission for cardiovascular disease, diabetes and kidney failure during times of high air pollution.

It’s important to take steps, when available, to reduce your risk from exposure to unhealthy air when the AQI is higher than 150.

  • If you must travel outdoors, an N95 or KN95 mask is recommended. N95 (U.S. standard) and KN95 (China standard) masks are protective from wildfire smoke, but they need to fit properly.
  • Sensitive groups and vulnerable individuals should stay indoors, keep windows closed and consider using a portable HEPA filter. HEPA filtration devices are effective at cleaning the air in a single room or small space.
  • Avoid strenuous outdoor activities, especially running and physical activity with children and those over 65.

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