A smokey view of Wilmington, DE during the summer of 2023.

Air quality basics you need to know

August 25, 2023 Written by Reese Miller, UD Extension Scholar

What do you think of when you hear the phrase “air quality”? Perhaps the reports you get on your phone called the air quality index? Smog from fires? Fireworks?

This summer, with it's high heat and smokey haze has been a bit of a crash course in how air quality affects us all. Given we all rely on the air around us to live, here are some specific things you should know about air quality:


Quantifying quality

The measure of our air quality is called the air quality index, or AQI. It operates on a scale of 0 to 500. The greater this value, the more pollutants are in the air, and the less safe it is to be inhaled. 

The Environmental Protection Agency assigns this value daily based on constant measurement and evaluation. Generally, AQI values 100 and below are thought of as acceptable for any group to be in. Any values above 100 are considered unhealthy for some, depending on their health status, and increasingly unhealthy for everyone as the value approaches 500. 


What's floating around up there?

But what exactly are the things polluting our air that drives the Environmental Protection Agency to assign these values? 

Most commonly, particular matter (things like dirt, soot, and smoke), carbon monoxide (a colorless toxic gas created by incomplete combustion of fuel), sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide (gasses that cause eye and airway irritation) are the things that pollute our air. They all cause harm to human health, so monitoring their abundance is of great importance. The more pollutants, the higher the AQI is.


Am I affected?

What might place you in a “sensitive group”--one of those who are negatively impacted by air quality faster than others? Having a lung disease, heart disease, being young, or being older in age may put you at greater risk. Ailments like asthma, emphysema, COPD, coronary artery disease, etc., are all examples of such. Generally, anything that compromises your lung capacity or overall physical health may place you in this sensitive category. If you’re unsure if you’re considered to be in this group, consult your doctor.

Checking the daily AQI–on your smartphone or any weather service–knowing your sensitivity and making conscious decisions about air pollution are the best ways to look out for your personal and community health! 


Improving outlooks 

What can you do to help improve the AQI? Biking, walking, or carpooling, as opposed to driving yourself to work, can lessen the emission of harmful gasses. Making sure you don’t burn plastic or trash or light fires are other ways to help improve the AQI. 

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