Air Pollution Effects on Health

General Health & Wellness • Jan 07, 2019

Air Pollution Effects on Health | Who’s at Risk?

How many of you have seen the Air Quality Index (AQI) posted as you drive by the Science Center? Or perhaps reported during the broadcast of your favorite radio show or news station? I get asked about this all the time, so I thought I could give you some clarity. The AQI is a nationally standardized way to report how healthy or unhealthy the air you breathe is. This number considers major air pollutants including carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxides, particle matters and ground-level ozone (“bad ozone” – the type emitted from cars, industrial gasses, etc.).

Effects of Air Pollution

At high levels, pollutant exposure has been associated with symptoms of cough, shortness of breath, chest pain with breathing, airway irritation, wheezing and exercise difficulty. The AQI number ranges from 0-500. Generally, greater than 150 is unhealthy. But even greater than 100 can be unhealthy for sensitive people such as small children, children with lung diseases like asthma, and children/adolescents that practice vigorous outdoor exercises. Anything greater than 300 would be hazardous and considered an emergency condition for the entire population.

How to Respond

What should you do about this? If you have a child that would be at high risk from pollutant effects, simply try to avoid the exposure. Consider spending more time indoors on days that levels are high. Limit vigorous outdoor activities, or if you must do an outdoor activity, plan it early or late in the day when levels are usually lower. Also, make sure you are taking any prescribed medications as instructed, and for children with asthma make you have their rescue inhalers handy. Of note, disasters like wildfires and volcanic eruptions can alter the air quality so make sure to follow your AQI numbers if you are living in or traveling to an affected area.

The Takeaway

In summary, air quality is important. Knowledge is your best defense. I personally have asthma and I have a child with asthma. Do we obsessively check local AQI levels? I must admit we don’t. But we listen to the news and make sure we know about it from time to time. I also check it on days when I or my son have unexpected or unusual asthma symptoms that our usual triggers can’t explain, so I can take action. If you have questions visit the Environmental Protection Agency and Center for Disease Control websites for additional general information. Or visit the Missouri Department of Natural Resources website for local information.