Share on PinterestBefore engaging in outdoor physical activity, it is advisable to consult the local Air Quality Index (AQI) to ensure safety. ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images
- Millions of Americans have been confined indoors for several days due to the smoke caused by wildfires in Canada.
- When wildfires occur, they release minuscule particulate matter known as PM 2.5.
- These particles can linger in the atmosphere and, when inhaled, penetrate deep into the lungs.
- Before engaging in outdoor physical activity, it is advisable to consult the local Air Quality Index (AQI) to ensure safety.
Residents on the east coast of the U.S. are increasingly rare to witness a clear, blue sky due to the heavy smoke caused by massive wildfires in Canada, with New York being particularly affected.
While indoors, running an air purifier and keeping windows closed can help minimize exposure to pollutants. However, if you wish to be outdoors, especially for physical activity, it is crucial to carefully assess the Air Quality Index (AQI).
To determine when it is safe to venture outside, experts recommend monitoring the local AQI levels, which provide information about the current air quality in the vicinity.
Reading and interpreting the AQI can be challenging for many individuals. The AQI scale ranges from 0 to 500 and includes different categories associated with varying health risks for different populations.
Scientists are still uncovering the short-term and long-term health implications of inhaling wildfire smoke. However, there is substantial evidence linking air pollution to respiratory and cardiovascular problems.
AQI charts, which assess the levels of PM2.5 and other pollutants like ozone in the atmosphere, typically present different categories:
AQI charts can be challenging to comprehend since the categories are broad, and the effects of the particles can vary among individuals, according to Christine Wiedinmyer, PhD, the associate director for science at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder.
The air is clean during this period, making it the safest time for individuals with underlying conditions to venture outside and engage in physical activity.
“With a range of 50 to 100, it is generally considered acceptable to open windows, go outside, and exercise, although some individuals may be particularly sensitive,” Christenson explained in a previous interview.
The risks become slightly higher, especially for individuals with underlying conditions.
“The general belief is that most healthy individuals are likely to be fine for a run,” Christenson stated.
However, some individuals, even if healthy, may experience symptoms minutes, hours, or days after engaging in outdoor physical activity within the range of 100 to 150. Nonetheless, the impact can vary significantly from person to person.
This category is somewhat ambiguous, according to Christenson, so it is essential to pay attention to one’s own body signals.
If any discomfort arises, which is not limited to shortness of breath and can include headache, fatigue, dizziness, or palpitations, the body is signaling the need for clean air.
Quick activities such as running errands or taking the dog out can be deemed acceptable. However, it is advisable to limit the time spent outdoors, as stated by Christenson.
Spending longer periods of time outside, such as an hour or two, or engaging in outdoor physical activity, will likely be challenging and may trigger breathing difficulties.
“Try not to exert yourself excessively,” Christenson advised within the 100 to 150 range.
When the AQI exceeds 150, indicating hazardous air quality, it is recommended that everyone avoids going outdoors and wears an N95 or P100 mask if absolutely necessary.
Now, the most crucial point to understand about AQI charts is that they focus on short-term health effects rather than long-term risks.
There is limited data regarding the health issues caused by prolonged exposure.
This makes it difficult to determine what specific activities are safe to perform outdoors at moderate and higher AQI levels, particularly as wildfires persist for longer durations and occur more frequently than in previous years.
“We lack precise answers regarding the air quality index at which it is safe to go outside, engage in hikes, or exercise,” Wiedinmyer stated.
While it may be acceptable to run outside when the air quality is moderate on occasions, repeatedly doing so for extended periods during wildfire seasons could have significant implications for one’s health in the long run.
What kind of implications? Once again, this remains unclear. However, based on studies examining air pollution in general, health experts assume that prolonged exposure to consistently high AQI levels may increase the risk of developing asthma, COPD, heart disease, and certain cancers.
There is also a belief that children, whose immune systems are not fully developed, may experience impaired lung function later in life, as mentioned by Christenson.
Wiedinmyer conducted research on individuals who cook using open fires in developing countries and discovered that regular exposure to smoke is linked to premature mortality and cardiovascular issues.
“The more exposure one has, the more severe the consequences,” Christenson affirmed.