Air Quality Awareness Week 2019 – Update: ‘Air Quality Index & Sensors’

Air is either healthy to breathe or it isn’t. Within the “isn’t” designation, based on U.S. Air Quality Index (AQI) information, there is the “Moderate” category (AQI of between 51 and 100), the “Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups” reading (101-150), the “Unhealthy” classification (151-200), the “Very Unhealthy” declaration (201-300) and the “Hazardous” level (301 and above).

The Air Quality Index is a great resource to reference if a person wishes to know exactly what the quality or condition of the air is for a particular area or locale.

For example, in the region in which I reside, if I am interested in knowing the status of air quality in my county – Fresno, easily accessible related data is available from the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District in this regard via its Web site:

For those seeking AQI data, there are any number of resources and sites that can provide this and/or similar information, such as the air quality map shown above. Even on local television broadcast news program-based weather reports, many provide updated AQI and air quality data and info.

That said, the Air Quality Index, for the useful information that it provides, it is all for naught if that information is not heeded or acted upon appropriately.

I will use an extreme example here to drive home my point.

Some time ago, there was an unhealthy air episode in the Fresno area on a cold autumn evening (in late November, I think). In fact, I had read or heard reports that Fresno’s air was so concentrated with fine particulates from wood being burned in fireplaces, outdoor fire pits, etc., I presume, that visibility at one of the local football games had been reduced to a point where a person seated in the stands on one side of the playing field could not see the bleachers on the side opposite.

To this day I cannot understand why play was even allowed to continue (assuming the game began with clearer air present) because of the amount of fine particulate matter in the air spectators, players, team staff, etc. there were exposed to.

If those interested persons understood the gravity of the situation, acting in the best interests of everyone on site, the players especially, play would have been postponed, I’m certain of it. Why play wasn’t interrupted is just beyond my ability to comprehend. Maybe football game attendees or participants or both were thinking: “Oh, what’s one night’s play in these conditions – what harm could there be?!”

So, I would ask the question: If the smoke (particulates) were from a devastating wildfire, would those at an affected stadium in the area be as dismissive toward that? I think, not!

In both instances, area AQI readings may have been exactly the same, but public perception being what it is as related to how the degree of danger of the one event compared to the other is interpreted or weighed, my suspicion is, one would be seen to pose a direct threat or danger to health with the other event somewhat less or far less so. Burning wood is still burning wood, regardless of the source or cause.

Quick reminder: The Air Quality Index: There’s a reason it exists.

Recognizing the threat

Sometime after I had moved to California from the East Coast, there was a tornado that hit parts of Baltimore, Maryland (where I hail from originally) and not knowing what was going on at the time, my dad went to the front door to investigate and based on what he told me later, the associated wind had forced the door open so quickly and violently, that the bottom part of the door lacerated one of my dad’s feet. His dog, meanwhile, had the presence of mind to take shelter under the bed. The dog had recognized the threat and responded accordingly.

I tell this story because humans – it would seem – are good at sensing danger, granted, not all danger types, but a goodly proportion.

While air pollution poses a direct threat to human and animal life alike, some people do not take the kinds of precautions necessary to protect themselves against this scourge.

Fortunately, there are sensors, monitors, alerters to help out in this regard. Monitors have been installed for detecting and measuring levels of both airborne particulates and ozone – the two main air pollution types. This information is available to the public to help keep us informed to enable us to, hopefully, make informed decisions in terms of what if any precautions should be taken so as to help us better protect ourselves from the dangers posed by polluted air.

And, these monitors or sensors can be stationary or mobile (portable). They can be either large or small and there are probably apps that can be loaded onto smart devices to provide human beings with but one more way to keep apprised of what the concentration in the air the pollutant of concern at the time measured or sampled is. Monitors, sensors and alerters are an invaluable aid, no question.

When it comes to air-pollution sensing, in the chain of elements in that system it is only as strong as its weakest link. Humans, by the way, are an integral part of that sensing apparatus too.

That’s my take.

For more on the Air Quality Index and on sensors, see the Air Quality Index & Sensors page here.

Next time we’ll take a look at Air Quality & Your Community.

Upper image above: US EPA and partners

– Alan Kandel