A woman pauses to breathe the clear, clean air
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Easy breathing

Taking Control of the Air You Breathe

Daren Wang
October 20, 2023

Nothing is more important to our lives than the air we breathe. But life in the twenty-first century often leads to poor air quality. Sitting in traffic, working in an office, and even cooking our food can lead to high levels of pollution in the air we breathe.

The quality of our air depends on a lot of things: the weather, nearby activity, and the time of day. And, of course, whether we’re outdoors, at work, or home. Understanding what you’re actually breathing is a good step to taking control of your own health.

Not so fresh air in the great outdoors

Many of us grew up listening to our mothers telling us to “go outside and get some fresh air,” even as she was scooting us out the kitchen door.

But nowadays, sometimes the air outside isn’t so fresh after all. The question is, how do you know when it’s good or it’s bad? Established by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Air Quality Index (AQI) serves as a vital tool in assessing and communicating the quality of the air we breathe. It serves as a daily indicator of air quality across the United States, with over 1,000 monitoring locations nationwide.

The AQI measures the concentration of five key pollutants in the atmosphere:

  • ground-level ozone
  • particulates
  • carbon monoxide
  • nitrogen dioxide
  • sulfur dioxide

The AQI scale ranges from 0 to 500, with higher numbers indicating worse air quality. An AQI below 100 suggests air quality is generally safe, while readings above 100 signal potential risks for certain individuals, especially those with respiratory conditions, older adults, and children. An AQI exceeding 200 falls into the "very unhealthy" category, prompting heightened concern.

There’s a color-coded alert system associated with the AQI, with green representing the best air quality and colors like orange, red, purple, and maroon indicating progressively worsening conditions. To safeguard public health, authorities issue air quality alerts when the AQI surpasses specific thresholds. Alerts are particularly critical for vulnerable groups, with AQI levels above 300 signaling extremely hazardous conditions.

Poor air quality can lead to various health issues, from minor irritations to serious heart and respiratory problems. Particulate matter (PM 2.5) is a key metric, measuring tiny particles that can pose significant health risks, especially to children and older adults.

When air quality deteriorates, follow these steps:

  • Avoid outdoor activities, smoking, and frying food.
  • Stay indoors with windows and doors closed.
  • Consider portable air cleaners for smaller spaces.
  • Be cautious with outdoor exercise when the AQI falls in the 101-150 range.

Keeping tabs on things

Even when there aren’t active alerts, it’s a good idea to keep tabs on the air quality in your area. Many weather apps on your phone show the Air Quality Index (AQI). Most often, that number is calculated using the EPA’s network of sensors, but there are only 1,000 of those scattered across the country, and air quality is very localized. More sophisticated, crowd-sourced measures are available. We check PurpleAIR before every bike ride, just to be sure. You can get your own PurpleAIR monitor to track the air quality at your home, inside or out. The outdoor data streams are aggregated with other users to create a much more comprehensive picture of air quality.

My office is safe, right?

When air pollution is high, or there’s a wildfire nearby, staying indoors is often advised. But indoor air quality is sometimes a problem as well. Indoor air quality (IAQ) in workplaces and schools has become a hot topic in recent years. It not only impacts the comfort of individuals but also profoundly influences their health. Subpar IAQ has been associated with a range of symptoms, including headaches, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, and irritation of the eyes, nose, throat, and lungs. Additionally, certain exposures like asbestos and radon may not manifest immediate symptoms but can pose a cancer risk over the long term.

A woman seems to be having difficulty breathing in her office

Many things contribute to poor IAQ in the workplace, encompassing inadequate ventilation, challenges in regulating temperature, extreme humidity levels, recent construction or renovation activities, and other factors impact the circulation of fresh air. On occasion, contaminants such as dust resulting from construction or renovation, mold, cleaning agents, pesticides, or other airborne chemicals (including trace amounts released as gas over time) can impact IAQ.

Effective ventilation and diligent building maintenance are key to averting and resolving IAQ issues. Although the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) does not have explicit IAQ standards, it does maintain regulations regarding ventilation and certain air pollutants that can contribute to IAQ problems. Additionally, several states have implemented their own regulations pertaining to indoor air quality.

How about home, then?

A woman seems to breathe easily at home

Even in your home, indoor air quality inside requires some attention to detail. Ensuring that your home is properly ventilated and that you keep your space free of harmful chemicals are important steps to making your home a safe haven. First, be sure to change your HVAC system’s filter at least every 90 days, more often if there are nearby factories, wildfires or other air pollutants.

Of course, smoking is a health hazard, but it is especially bad indoors. The toxic gasses and pollutants linger for days and can cause harm to everyone in the home, not just the smoker. A good way to improve your indoor air quality is to upgrade your cooktop to an induction stove. Natural gas stoves release carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, and other harmful chemicals into the air, and new induction stoves keep all of that out of your home.

Air purifiers are a popular choice for people who are concerned about the air quality in their homes. Our favorite is the Coway Airmega. It has a four-stage filter, including HEPA quality, a deodorization filter, and air-quality monitoring. It’s got a nice quiet, slow mode that comes in at just 24 dB and a cool LED light that changes color to indicate the air quality in your home.

If you’re really cost-conscious or find yourself in a situation where the air quality is a real problem for your health, but you can’t get your hands on a purifier, you might consider a Corsi-Rosenthal box.

These improvised purifiers were devised during the worst days of the COVID-19 pandemic to offer a low-cost tool to reduce the risk of that airborne disease. They are neither beautiful nor quiet, but multiple tests have shown them to improve air quality.

If you want more detail than a light color to let you know about your home's air quality, the Awair Element is a data geek’s dream. The IAQ monitor tracks temperature, humidity, carbon dioxide, volatile organic compounds, and particulate matter in your home. It connects to your home Wi-Fi network and sends real-time data to a custom app on your smartphone, and it even works with Alexa and Google Assistant.

A recent study at Beijing University showed that decreased air quality meant a shorter duration of sleep for students when the air quality was low. For many, knowing about air quality might help them sleep better, but actually having clean air will most certainly help you get a good night’s sleep.

Editor’s note: If you make a purchase through our affiliate partner links, we may receive a commission. This does not impact the recommendations we make.

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