This post is meant to supplement my longer posts related to living with wildfire smoke. If you follow along with the Smoky Skies edition of True Nature Filter, you'll notice that I often refer to the Air Quality Index, or AQI. In this post, I want to introduce you to the AQI, share my experience using an AQI app, and tell you what I have learned about air quality in my short time as a smoke sufferer. Much of the info I’m sharing is borrowed from AirNow.gov, and I will link other sources as necessary.
What is the AQI?
The AQI is a measurement of pollution in the air and was created to monitor five key air pollutants that are regulated by the Clean Air Act. These are ground-level ozone, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide. In order to inform the public about local air quality and potential risks, the AQI is divided into six categories, each with a corresponding color. The table below is taken from AirNow.gov.
How do I check the AQI in my area?
I learned pretty quickly that not all cities and towns monitor all five of the major pollutants mentioned above. For example, on days when the sky is so hazy from wildfire smoke that I can’t even see the house across the street, I can Google “Air Quality Index – Talent, OR” and find that the air is supposedly “Good.” This is because Talent doesn’t monitor particulate matter, which are the dangerous particles floating around in wildfire smoke. The ozone level in Talent could be in the “Good” category, while the particulates might be at the “Hazardous” level, but if Talent doesn’t measure particulates and only measures ozone, the AQI may not seem all that bad from just a quick web search. That is why I started getting my AQI readings from Medford and Ashland, the two cities on either side of Talent that do measure particulate matter.
The app I have the most experience with for AQI is called AirVisual, though I can't tell you if it is "the best." You'll have to check out other sources for app comparisons. Here are some recent screenshots I took of the AirVisual app to give you a sense of what it's like to use it:
Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups.
AirNow.gov offers an explanation for what constitutes a "sensitive group." Use your best judgement at this AQI level for yourself and your loved ones, based on health history, age, and type of outdoor activity. I feel symptoms at this level, even though I'm in my twenties.
This has become a familiar sight on my phone's screen. Anything lower than "unhealthy" usually increases my mood by about 200%. (Image getting excited over "moderate" air quality.)
The AirVisual app shows an icon to help you know what kind of protection to use if you have to go outside.
Know your surroundings.
It's smart to keep an eye on where the healthier air might be, even if you aren't planning a trip. If conditions become unbearable, you know where to head to get out of the smoke.
Should I always trust the AQUI?
In my own experience with wildfire smoke, visibility (Can I see the mountains? The house across the street? The stop sign down the road?) has been important in my decision about whether or not to go outside and what kind of protection I might need. Smell (Does it smell like an evening in a campground when I step outside?) also plays a role. There have been times when my AQI app will report that pollution is "Moderate," but I take one step outside and know that I need my respirator mask. Winds shift easily and quickly, and if the air hasn't been checked in the last hour, or if the result hasn't yet been reported, then the AQI may be misleading. I would recommend using the AQI as one more tool for making decisions about how to spend your smoky day, but I would caution against using it blindly. If your eyes and nose are telling you "NOPE!" then listen. If you feel alright while you're out in the smoke, but then that night you feel it in your chest, throat, etc., then that's another sign that you may need to limit your time outside.