All around the country, outdoor equipment is selling out. Roller skates are selling out everywhere. Bikes are almost impossible to find. More people are kayaking than they were last summer, that’s for sure.
And the reason is fairly obvious – people can’t go to bars and restaurants with comfort and ease, and they’re sick to death of staring at the walls of their houses.
So instead, America experienced a rise in socially-distanced, low-risk outdoor activities the likes of which we haven’t seen since the affordable home TV hit the market.
Plus, we’ve known for years that indoor air is fairly toxic, with at least 30 chemicals being present in all building materials and thus in their contained atmosphere.
Okay. We’re all outside. We’re hiking, biking, and cycling, out in the air, where it’s safe.
But only to a degree is our air safe, and it’s especially dependent on where you are and when you’re checking it.
The dead heat and still winds of midsummer pose more than just sunburn risks.
They’re also the worst time of year for air quality. In the past few weeks, as temperatures rose unrelentingly, many counties across the country have sent “Air Quality Code Orange” warnings to people’s phones.
Beyond knowing certain areas, like New York City or Los Angeles, have higher levels of air pollution, most people don’t understand what that means.
Let’s break it down.
The Air Quality Index
In 1968, the National Air Pollution Control Administration developed the Air Quality Index (AQI) to call public attention to an overlooked area of pollution – the very air we breathe, which we now recognize as the driving force behind climate change.
The AQI functions within the capacity of the EPA and can be found throughout the states. Most countries have their own version of the AQI so that we can globally track which areas need the most work.
It largely tracts how much of the air is saturated with these pollutants:
- Ground-level ozone: When exhaust from cars, trucks, power plants, and other combustion systems meet sunlight and heat, ability to breathe is lessened.
- Particulate matter: Fires, vehicles, power plants, or dust can release chemical particles in the air and force wheezing, coughing, shortness of breath, etc.
- Carbon dioxide: High concentrations are not able to mix into the atmosphere when it’s very hot with low wind and cause breathing problems.
- Sulfur dioxide: High concentrations are not able to mix into the atmosphere when it’s very hot with low wind and cause breathing problems.
- Nitrogen dioxide: High concentrations are not able to mix into the atmosphere when it’s very hot with low wind and cause breathing problems.
The Clean Air Act, passed in 1963, determined that those were the most insidious and common pollutants.
The index itself is split into various levels of toxicity. Air quality between 0-50 is good (green), between 51-100 is moderate (yellow), 101-150 is unhealthy for sensitive groups (orange), 151-200 is unhealthy (red), 201-300 is very unhealthy (purple), and 301-500 is hazardous (maroon).
Typically, when an area’s AQI reaches 101, local weather authorities will advise the public that those at risk should avoid going outside to breathe the air.
What does that mean? What could happen?
Who’s at Risk? What Should They Do?
The AQI considers those at risk when the air quality is a Code Orange to be children, older adults, adults who work or exercise outside, anyone with heart conditions, and adults with respiratory conditions.
Does that mean you’re safe if you don’t fall into one of those categories?
Toxins are insidious, especially when they’re inhaled. That’s because you take in air constantly, so every breath actually increases the toxic load inside your cells.
And those are the toxins we’re tracking – there are plenty more in the air that build up over time. Living closer to freeways, to downtown urban areas, to power and industrial plants, can all increase the toxic build up in your cells, lungs, organ systems.
They can affect your metabolic processes, disrupt your hormones, and affect your respiratory capabilities.
There’s even an app that tracks how polluted the air is no matter where you are – ”Sh**t I Smoke” – that will tell you what the cigarette equivalent of the air that you’re breathing is. In other words, based on the air quality in your area, you may as well be smoking X amount of cigarettes.
We’ve got all kinds of legislature and public efforts to curb air pollution.
But around these particular hot and still summer months, we’ve got to be extra careful.
Keep wearing your masks around others (there’s still a pandemic, remember?) And if you plan on spending extended periods of time outside, check the AQI for your area!
Stick to the woods or other carbon sinks for your outdoor activities as much as possible!