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  • Susan Russell

What’s Up With The Air Quality Lately?

I spent much of June and July compulsively checking my phone’s weather app for the latest air quality index (AQI) updates to determine whether it was safe to take my dogs outside for a walk or my toddler to the playground. During air quality alerts, I closed my windows and stayed inside. I swapped breezy jogs under a glowing sun for treadmill miles within a dark, cement basement. Evenings to be enjoyed on outdoor patios laughing, dining, and sharing stories with family and friends were left waiting for another day.

In New York State, Air Quality Health Advisories are issued by the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and Department of Health (DOH) when levels of pollution, either from ozone or fine particulate matter, are predicted to exceed an AQI value of 100. Values exceeding 100 include categories of concern ranging from “Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups” to “Hazardous” [for everyone].

According to the DOH, those most sensitive to pollution include children and teenagers, older adults, pregnant women, individuals with heart or respiratory problems, and people who exercise or work outside. The EPA and UNICEF consider children to be at greatest risk because their lungs, brains, and other organs are still developing. They are also more likely to be active outside and breathe twice as fast as adults, often by mouth, exposing them to more pollutants. Outdoor air pollution is associated with serious health problems such as chronic bronchitis, heart attacks, asthma, and premature death.

Historically, the Northeast has primarily received air quality alerts due to ground-level ozone, a pollutant created when sunlight interacts with motor vehicles and industrial emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). This year, Americans from the Midwest to the East Coast are being alerted due to elevated levels of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) from wildfires raging across Canada. Other sources of outdoor PM2.5 include vehicle exhaust and the burning of wood, gas, and other fuels. The CDC reports that fine particles are particularly dangerous because they can get deep into the lungs and even into the bloodstream.

The University Corporation for Atmospheric Research states, “Air pollution is causing the climate to change, and climate change is also causing air quality to change.” A warming climate results in more frequent extreme weather, such as heat waves and drought, which can negatively impact air quality. Heat waves lead to increases in ground-level ozone pollution, as the chemical reactions that create ozone in the atmosphere occur more often in hot temperatures. Forest fires become more common and intense, as prolonged heat often leads to drought conditions, making it easier for fires to spread and more difficult to put out.

With climate change, we can expect to see more instances of extreme weather and air quality concerns in the coming years. Action is needed now, more than ever before, as the window to make changes is rapidly closing. The EPA provides several tips for reducing outdoor air pollution that include choosing a cleaner commute (carpool, bike, walk, or use public transportation), reducing the number of trips you take in your car, avoiding excessive idling of

your vehicle, refraining from burning leaves, trash, and other materials, and limiting use of gas- powered lawn and garden equipment.

We should all be looking for ways to lower our emissions, increase sustainability, and improve industrial processes to reduce our carbon footprint.

-By Katie Archer, ACES Member

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