by Deion Clifton
Wildfires are becoming more of a problem as years pass. Their intensity, duration, and severity have increased due to warmer temperatures and dry conditions.
This summer, Delaware felt those effects as gray smoke blanketed Hockessin and stretched as far south as South Carolina. For weeks we saw fluctuating Air Quality Index (AQI) readings, ranging from good to hazardous until finally stabilizing at a reasonable level.
To be clear, air quality as a whole has gotten significantly better since the 1980s despite the issues listed above. However, when a specific event – which can include anything from wildfires to things unrelated to climate change like train derailments and gas leaks – causes a dramatic spike in AQI over a given area, it’s important to know how we can protect ourselves.
No matter your sensitivity to it, poor air quality can be harmful to anyone who isn’t taking the proper precautions. Here’s everything you need to know about air quality and how to proceed with caution when maneuvering through polluted air conditions in the future.
The Air Quality Index is a scale that rates the amount of air pollution in a given area. The Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control’s (DNREC) Air Quality Division “monitors and regulates all emissions to the air” in Delaware.1
The AQI number scale coordinates with a color graph to effectively issue warning alerts. The scale rates the pollution level from 0 (good) to 500 (hazardous). To receive a correct rating, DNREC uses a complex calculation administered by the EPA, which involves measuring the six common air pollutants – ozone (O3), carbon monoxide (CO), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), sulfur dioxide (SO2), lead (Pb), and particulate matter (PM2.5) – as well as coarse particles (PM10).2,3
Effects of Poor Air Quality
Poor air quality poses many health and environmental risks. Ozone and particulate matter are two of the biggest threats to the health of those who inhale it.
Children under 18 and seniors 65 and older are the most at-risk age groups affected by air pollution. Others include those with chronic heart disease, lung disease, or diabetes, as well as those who are pregnant or who frequently work or exercise outdoors.
Ozone can be found at ground level or in the upper atmosphere, 6-31 miles above the surface. Ozone found in the atmosphere occurs naturally, and it, in fact, blocks the sun’s harmful UV rays.
However, ground-level ozone is harmful because, unlike stratosphere ozone, it only occurs during chemical reactions caused by pollutants. It can irritate airways, cause coughing, and reduce lung function. The cells surrounding the lungs can also sustain damage, which makes them more susceptible to infection, provokes asthma and other chronic lung diseases, and potentially leads to permanent lung damage.4
Also referred to as “particle pollution,” this gas is a mixture of airborne particles made up of solid and liquid compounds small enough to enter the body and even pierce the lungs in some cases. These particles come in varied sizes, ranging from big enough to be seen with the naked eye (coarse particles) to tiny molecules you can only see through microscopes (fine particles). While coarse particles come from grinding and stirring up dust, fine particles come from motor vehicles, power plants, burning wood, forest fires, and other combustion processes.
According to the EPA, particle pollution has been “linked with illnesses and death from heart or lung disease.”4 It can cause cardiac arrest and arrhythmias. During direct exposure, people may experience coughing, shortness of breath, and red, itchy eyes. Aggravation of an existing respiratory disease is also possible after exposure.
You may only notice the negative effects of ozone and particulate matter in the form of reduced visibility. But these contaminants stress the environment in a myriad of ways.
Ozone pollution halts plants’ ability to grow and reproduce, making plants more susceptible to diseases and pests. Leaves are also damaged to the point where they get spotted and brown and fall off before they’re ready. Spare the Air says, “Scientists believe that the impacts of ground-level ozone on long-lived species – such as trees – add up over many years so that whole forests or ecosystems can be affected.”5
Particulate matter travels distances and can settle on land or water, creating acidic water sources, stripping the soil of its nutrients, causing damage to crops, and more. It can also contribute to what we know as weather damage caused to monuments, vehicles, and other structures.
There’s a direct correlation between global warming and the duration and intensity in which wildfires spread, and as climate change continues, the EPA expects air quality to decline as well. Not only do they expect the effects of air pollution to increase outdoors, but they’re also predicting that it will affect us indoors.6 At an unhealthy level, air pollution can infiltrate our homes and workplaces through open doors, windows, and ventilation systems.
The U.S. could also see increased allergy-inducing indoor pollutants such as mold, dust mites, and bacteria. Flooding from increased heavy precipitation can create damp indoor environments. The EPA finds that poor indoor air quality can even produce symptoms of heart disease and respiratory diseases.6
5 Things You Can Do to Protect Yourself
1. Stay Indoors
If air quality is dangerous or you’re part of a sensitive group, it’s suggested to keep all activities indoors, covering all cracks and closing all windows and doors. Air purifiers that use HEPA filters are essential in these situations, as they are the quickest way to improve your air quality. Central air conditioners should also help remove particulate matter.
2. Recirculate Air
If you must leave the house to run errands and drive places, ensure your air recirculates in your car. This will ensure your car uses the healthy supplied air within your vehicle instead of pulling it from outside.
3. Wear A Mask
I know, I know! After dealing with them for two years, you may hesitate to touch a mask again. But to keep safe from the particles and debris that threaten your health, NPR recommends you wear a well-fitted N-95 mask when AQI readings are high.7 A cloth mask or bandana will not protect you against particulate matter.
4. Improve Indoor Air Quality
Start by cleaning up around the house; get rid of those dust mites and look out for any mold. Avoid extended use of traditional candles, fireplaces, and gas stoves, and if you smoke, do so outside. Finally, use your hood vent when cooking, especially when frying foods in oil.
5. Reduce Forest Fires
Pay close attention to weather patterns, noticing droughts. During these times, avoid outdoor combustion or anything that may cause sparks, especially when it’s windy.