The Health Warning You Probably Ignore

How often do you hear “code red” day on the weather report and change your outdoor plans accordingly? Probably not as often as you should. These color coded days are an important part of the Air Quality Index, a system used by the EPA and local air quality officials to alert the public when air pollution reaches dangerous levels.


I don’t see smog or feel bad.  Is air pollution really that harmful?

The Air Quality Index, or AQI, calculates and measures two common types of pollutants: ground level ozone (smog) and particle pollution. Smog commonly forms in the summer when pollution from cars, chemical plants, power plants and other sources combine in hot sunlight. Smog negatively affects the lungs and respiratory system, particularly in the young and old, those with pre-existing lung or health conditions, and those who regularly exercise or work outdoors.

Particle pollution, on the other hand, is a mixture of very small solids and liquids within the air caused by cars, power plants, wood burning, forest fires and other sources. These tiny particles can reach deep into your lungs and heart, aggravating existing health conditions or creating new ones.

Although some groups are more susceptible than others, the reality is that air pollution is dangerous for everyone. Do you go outside? Then you are at risk. In an attempt to protect the general public from these risks, the AQI measures the danger level on a scale ranging from 0-500. To make it easier to report, the EPA has broken down the scale into five color-coded categories with corresponding levels of health concern. Code green, with AQI values from 0-50, lets the public know that air conditions are good. Code yellow, with levels from 51-100, is considered moderate, while code orange is considered unhealthy for sensitive groups. Codes red, purple and maroon can be considered dangerous for everyone – no matter how healthy you are.


How do I help protect myself?

The first step is paying attention to the Air Quality Index reports, which are usually included in your local weather forecast or printed in the local newspaper. During days with elevated risks, avoid prolonging your time outdoors. If for whatever reason this information is not available via the media, you can visit for air quality forecasts or sign up for EnviroFlash, a free service that will send you e-mail alerts when there are air quality concerns in your area. For even more information on how air pollution levels change and move throughout the day, check out these real-time maps provided by the EPA.

The next step to protecting yourself is by making a conscious decision to care for the air. Start thinking about the different things you can do to be part of the solution, such as not burning trash, leaves or brush and keeping your car (or boat, lawnmower, etc.) engines maintained. Also check out these helpful tips on driving less and using less electricity. All these actions can add up to healthier air for us all.

Change Your State through simple, everyday actions.
Explore more sustainability tips related to food, energy, waste, water, wellness and travel.