How to check the air quality near you

by The Insights

Whether you are concerned about wildfire smoke coming from Canada or other pollutants that make the air less breathable, it’s a good habit to always check the air quality index on your phone. Yes, it’s one more thing to do when you grab your keys and rush out the door, but knowledge can help you decide if those quick errands can wait until things clear up a bit.

It’s scary to look out the window and see an otherworldly orange haze, but the particles you can’t see can also negatively impact your health. Here’s some crucial information on what the Air Quality Index actually is, how to see the levels near you, and some tips for taking care of yourself when the air outside contains high levels of pollutants.

What is the Air Quality Index?

The AQI is an Environmental Protection Agency scale that ranges from 0 to 500 based on the level of air pollution in a city. The main pollutants tracked by the AQI are sulfur dioxide, ground-level ozone, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and particulate pollution. For smoke from wildfires, it is particularly important to keep an eye on the amount of polluting particles in the air.

Urban centers are required to measure and report daily pollution levels to the EPA. If you live in a more rural area, you may not have detailed air quality data. Check with local leaders to see what information is measured and available in your city.

How do these AQI numbers break down? An AQI between 0 and 50 is considered a good baseline when there are few health risks from breathing the air. A score between 51 and 100 means there is more pollution in the air and this can impact sensitive people.

From 101 to 150 years old, children and the elderly need to be careful and limit the time spent outside the home. When it reaches between 151 and 200, the high levels of pollution are likely to have a detrimental effect on everyone. An AQI above 200 signals even more intense pollution, and a reading above 300 is considered dangerous.

How can I check it on my phone?

There are several free apps you can download to keep an eye on the AQI. One option favored by WIRED staff members is an app called AirCare, and it’s fairly simple to set up.

First, download the app on your smartphone. After that, open the app and allow it to access your location data. The app’s main screen will display an AQI number based on the pollution near you.

Tap that number to see a breakdown of why the AQI is that score. For example, the AQI in San Francisco at the time of writing is 48. Looking closer at the data, I can see that ozone levels are the main pollutant contributing to this score.

Curious to know what the air quality looks like elsewhere? Use the search bar at the top of the app to see the AQI in other places. When I checked the AQI for New York City, it was a frightening 152. Ozone levels were similar to SF measurements, but the amount of tiny particles from wildfires was dangerously high.

My lungs are important! What steps can I take?

The New York State Department of Health recommends people wear a mask over their mouth and nose when traveling outdoors in poor air quality. While you may have had cloth masks around the house since the height of the coronavirus pandemic, more substantial protection is needed from wildfire smoke.

According to Centers for Disease Control, a cloth mask prevents the spread of your respiratory droplets, but it doesn’t stop all the tiny particles of wildfire smoke from traveling down into your lungs when you inhale polluted air. One of your best options is a comfortable N95. Need more high quality masks? Here is our roundup of where to get N95s online.

It is essential to stay at home, with all windows closed, whenever possible during high levels of air pollution. Consider running an air purifier to keep indoor air clean. My household uses the Blueair Pure 411 Auto. Check out our tested list of the best air purifiers to find out which options work well in your home.

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