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You got an air quality alert. What now?

If you’re in the United States this summer, you may notice an uptick in air quality alerts coming to your phone. As we saw last summer — when wildfires in Canada caused much of the East Coast to experience smoke and air pollution, not to mention hazy, orange-tinted skies in New York City — air quality is expected to be impacted by seasonal changes. For one, wildfire season has become more frequent and intense, a pattern experts expect to continue as climate change creates warmer conditions. But other factors can also contribute to air pollution, which is associated with negative health effects, especially for certain vulnerable groups.

How can you stay safe, and what should you do if your area is experiencing poor air quality? Here’s what to know.

An air quality alert is a notification given by various public health officials, including state and local air quality agencies, that warn the public when air pollution reaches unhealthy levels. You can sign up to get alerts on your phone from the Environmental Protection Agency.

The Air Quality Index (AQI) is the system that warns the public when air pollution is dangerous. Different advisory levels for air quality range from the green “good” level to the “hazardous” maroon level.

There are about 4,000 monitoring stations owned and operated mostly by state environmental agencies and regulated by the EPA that send hourly or daily measurements of these main air pollutants:

  • Ground-level ozone

  • Particulate matter

  • Carbon monoxide

  • Sulfur dioxide

  • Nitrogen dioxide

Ozone and particulate matter threaten public health the most, Peter DeCarlo, associate professor of environmental health and engineering at Johns Hopkins University, tells Yahoo Life.

When particulate matter — defined by the EPA as “a mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets found in the air” — reaches levels that exceed unhealthy levels for the public, it triggers an alert.

“People are probably familiar with this from wildfire,” DeCarlo says.” That kind of haze that you see in the air and the particles in the air are particulate matter.” Indeed, air quality alerts for Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota went out on May 13 as Canadian wildfires sent heavy clouds of smoke into the region, creating hazy conditions.

Meanwhile, ozone — defined by the EPA as natural and man-made “highly reactive gas … that occurs in the Earth’s upper atmosphere (the stratosphere) and lower atmosphere (the troposphere) — gets worse in the U.S. during the summer because of increased sunlight.

“Ozone is formed by chemistry that happens in the atmosphere … and the summertime conditions — where it’s hot, and there’s a lot of sunlight — kind of push that chemistry to go faster and make more ozone,” DeCarlo explains. ”That’s why the summertime is when we see the ozone [and] air quality alerts.”

Yes, experts say. Marianthi-Anna Kioumourtzoglou, associate professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, tells Yahoo Life that when a person breathes in pollutants, the particles produce local oxidative stress — an imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants in your body — and inflammation in the lungs, which can expand throughout the body.

According to Kioumourtzoglou, air pollution has been linked to “adverse” cardiovascular, pregnancy and neurodevelopmental outcomes. Experts also told Yahoo Life last year that research has linked exposure to pollution with behavioral and cognitive issues in infants and toddlers, while the effects of wildfire smoke have been associated with a higher risk of preterm birth and lower birth weight. Air pollution can also exacerbate symptoms of asthma, such as wheezing.

If you receive an air quality alert, pay attention to its color-coding: the darker the color, the more necessary it is to stay indoors. Experts also advise people to plan outdoor activities such as exercising or doing lawn care at times when ozone levels are lower, usually in the morning and evening.

Here are some ways to stay safe if you get an alert:

  • Limit outdoor activities, especially if you fall into “sensitive groups,” including children, people with heart and lung disease, respiratory issues, pregnant people and older adults

  • Wear a mask if you have to be outdoors

  • Minimize exercising outdoors to prevent taking bigger breaths in poor air quality conditions

  • Keep pets inside

  • Turn on the air conditioner to recirculate the air inside

  • Monitor online tools like Purple Air that share real-time air quality data

Kioumourtzoglou acknowledges that while it’s important to avoid air pollution in general, many people do not have the option to stay indoors.

“It’s one of these things that, unfortunately, the people who work outside are also lower socioeconomic status, potentially, and may be already at higher risk for diseases,” Kioumourtzoglou says. “Many of us cannot move houses if we live near a highway, and cannot install filters in our homes, because all these things cost [money] and maybe we cannot afford these things.”


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