How Air Quality Affects Health at a Local Level & What You Can Do About It

Air pollution is a mixture of gasses and particulate matter, including vehicle exhaust, smoke, industrial emissions, and road dust. In some communities, pollen from plants and trees also contributes to poor air quality seasonally.

Poor air quality affects our health, even when we don't know it. With every breath you take, air quality affects your overall well being. Poor air quality can cause everything from migraine headaches in adults to premature birth and sudden infant death syndrome in infants.

How Polluted is the Air in the US?

Girl sitting on building with trees on it

According to the EPA, the number of carbon emissions, NO2, and lead in the air has been steadily decreasing overall.

But certain neighborhoods and low-income areas are still suffering from poor air quality.

There are inequalities in air quality throughout the nation, summed up in these statistics:

  • In a 2022 study, the American Lung Association found that more than 40% of Americans — over 137 million people, and nearly half of us — live in areas with unhealthy levels of particle pollution or ozone.
  • A 2022 press release published by the Harvard School of Public Health states ethnic and racial minorities and lower-income groups in the US face a higher risk of premature death from exposure to PM2.5, fine particulate matter floating in the air we breathe.

Air quality problems aren't strictly occurring in low-income neighborhoods or even major metropolitan areas known for industrial pollution and traffic. Julian Marshall, a UW professor, says, "While every community is unique, there are some factors that play out over and over again consistently across our country. If we go state by state, there's no place where there are no environmental justice concerns."

But how can individuals and community leaders measure air quality? What does the air quality index mean? What is the EPA Clean Air Act, and how does it affect your community? The team at Just Air is here to help. We'll answer all these questions today, explain how air quality affects your health, and what you can do about it. 

What Does an Air Quality Index Mean? How is Air Quality Measured?

man walking through park with dog

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) uses the Air Quality Index (AQI) to measure air pollution levels of both ozone and particulate materials. You'll sometimes see air quality issues described on your local news using AQI.

Understanding AQI

Think of AQI as a measuring stick ranging from 0 to 500, where:

  • Green: A score of 0 to 50 is perfect. Air quality is satisfactory and poses no health risks. 
  • Yellow: A score of 51 to 100 is acceptable but can be problematic for at-risk or sensitive individuals. 
  • Orange: A score of 101 to 150 is unhealthy for sensitive groups. People with asthma, allergies, seniors and infants suffer. 
  • Red: At 151 to 200, even healthy individuals are beginning to feel the effects of very unhealthy air quality. Sensitive individuals may feel very unwell.
  • Purple: A score of 201 to 300 means very unhealthy air for everyone. Stay indoors, turn on air purifiers, and closely watch people in sensitive groups.
  • Maroon: An AQI of 301 to 500 is highly unhealthy for everyone. This is a dangerous situation, and your health will almost surely be affected. 

Which Pollutants Are Measured by AQI?

Five major air pollutants known to be hazardous to our health include:

Now that we've answered your question, "what does air quality index mean?" it's time to talk about how air quality affects health. 

How Poor Air Quality Affects Our Health

2 doctors next to a plant

Slightly poor air quality can affect the health of sensitive individuals. Newborns, the elderly, and people with asthma and allergies are usually the first to feel immediate effects. As the air quality in your neighborhood gets worse, more people struggle. The consequences of poor air quality are exacerbated on very hot days.

What Are Some Health Problems Associated with Poor Air Quality?

Both short-term and long-term exposure to pollutants can cause a host of health problems. Individuals with respiratory challenges like asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) are often the first to suffer from asthma attacks, uncontrollable coughing, and wheezing.

Poor air quality increases your risk of respiratory infections like bronchitis, heart disease, stroke, and lung cancer. 

Can Poor Air Quality Cause Migraines?

Probably, yes. One study of 18,921 patients who went to the hospital for severe migraines found that poor air quality may trigger migraines, especially on hot days. 

Does Poor Air Quality Cause Asthma?

The EPA says yes. Poor air quality can cause asthma attacks, especially in children. African-American adolescents, kids in low-income areas, and those who live in medical deserts — areas of the US that have little access to immediate health care — tend to suffer most. 

Children in low-income communities have less access to healthcare. Sometimes it's because hospitals and facilities are far away and only accessed by public transportation. Sometimes it's because parents cannot afford medical care beyond emergencies. And among African American children particularly, genetic tendencies for respiratory or circulatory issues like Sickle Cell disease are more common.

Does Poor Air Quality Cause Cancer?

Yes. Per the American Association for Cancer Research (AARC), there is a definite link between poor air quality and your risk for certain types of cancer. Air quality also seems to affect the severity (and mortality rate) associated with:

  • Cancers of the upper digestive tract
  • Cancers of accessory digestive organs like liver, gall bladder, pancreas
  • Breast cancer
  • And lung cancer

Of all these types of cancer, breast cancer in both males and females seems to be affected most by poor air quality. Per AARC, individuals with breast cancer exposed to very poor air for a few years have a mortality rate of 80%. 

What About Heart Disease?

According to the EPA, poor air quality can damage your heart. When you inhale pollutants, they travel through your entire circulatory system, including your heart. Combine this with issues like high cholesterol and high blood pressure, and the results can be deadly. 

There are plenty of studies regarding air quality and heart health. In May 2016, Dr. Joel Kaufman published a study that found long-term exposure to particulate matter and nitrogen oxides can prematurely age blood vessels and contribute to the buildup of calcium in the coronary artery. This calcium buildup restricts blood flow to the heart and major blood vessels, increasing the likelihood of heart attacks and strokes.

All this research, performed by various groups and organizations in the US and worldwide, tells us that poor air quality is bad for our health. But this is something we already knew. 

How Can I Monitor Air Quality in My Neighborhood?

We're here to help. At JustAir, we know good air quality is essential to a healthy community. It's our mission to make all communities, but particularly underserved communities, aware of the risks of air pollution and provide them with resources they can trust to monitor the air they breathe. 

From the design and implementation of air quality monitoring systems, through their calibration and data collection, to informing the residents of harmful air quality conditions, JustAir can keep your community healthier. Contact us now to learn more about air quality monitoring systems, or download our app to see it in action in Grand Rapids, MI.

Darren Riley
July 28, 2021
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