Driving into Minneapolis after a weekend trip up North is slow and tedious. It is especially slow and tedious at the end of a holiday weekend. Families crowd the road--SUVs and minivans reign. Sometimes there are car crashes, and often times there is construction. Digital billboards announce delays and provide appropriate warnings.
At the end of this recent Memorial Day weekend, the message which flashed across these billboards read, “Air quality warning: Consider reducing trips.” No further explanation was offered, and the isolated suggestion harked on post-apocalyptic fears. Should we be limiting time spent in cars? Should we be limiting time spent outside of the house? Later that same day I received an email from a local private school alerting parents and students to their updated air quality guideline, “in anticipation of more frequent air quality alerts in the future.”
So yes, Minneapolis, like so many other cities, must consider the immediate impact of pollution. We must consider how to best protect our own health, the health of our community, and the health of our environment in the present moment and moving forward. To do so, it is important to explore what poor air quality really means, how pollution reaches such high levels (and what makes summer especially bad), and what we can be doing to help reduce air pollution levels.
Air quality is determined by using an Air Quality Index (AQI) each day, and AQI scales vary among countries. In the U.S. our AQI ranges from 0-500, with anything below 50 considered “good,” 51-100 considered “moderate,” 101-150 considered “unhealthy for sensitive groups,” 151-200 considered “unhealthy,” 201-300 considered “very unhealthy,” and 301-500 considered “hazardous.” AQI is measured among five different categories, “ground level ozone” (smog), “particle pollution” (soot), “carbon monoxide,” “sulfur dioxide,” and “nitrogen dioxide.”
The most recent air quality warning in Minneapolis was issued due to high levels of ozone, or smog, present in the city. This is one of the most harmful types of air pollutants, and is a result of pollutants mixing with sunlight. Because of this, high levels of ozone pollutants are especially common in hot urban areas (think of that infamous Los Angeles smog). Smog is dangerous as it reduces lung function; it is dangerous for any vulnerable population, and is especially bad for anyone with asthma or prior lung conditions.
When air quality warnings are issued, there are a few steps that you can take to protect your health.
First, stay aware of air quality forecasts! The first step to taking precautions against air quality warnings, is to be aware when they are in effect.
Be mindful of your exercise routine. If you are a runner (or participate in any outdoor activities), attempt to run in areas far from busy roads. Cardio activities encourage heavy breathing, and result in your taking in more polluted air. Limit this combination of bad air and cardio activity in whatever way best suits your lifestyle. Perhaps take a rest day or move to the gym when air quality is especially poor.
Spend more time indoors, and use air conditioning over open windows when air quality warnings are in effect.
If you have asthma, be sure to keep your inhaler on hand. Pollutants in the air could make your symptoms more severe than normal.
Always wear sunscreen to protect your skin against UV damage. Although it is harmful when Ozone levels are high on the ground level, it is harmful, too, that the ozone is thinning. There is less to protect us from the sun’s harsh rays. Consider using vitamins C and E serums, and any antioxidants, to protect your skin against pollution damage.
In The Plain English Guide to the Clean Air Act, the EPA outlines a few steps you can take to to help limit your impact on pollution levels in your area. I’ve outlined a few of those steps, and gathered some other useful suggestions.
Again, stay aware of air quality forecasts! Staying aware of the air quality forecast will help you determine what steps are safe to be taking when combating pollutants in your area.
Make sure you are conserving energy at home as much as possible. There is the obvious stuff, like turning off lights, fans, and appliances when they are not in use, but then there are also the energy wasters you may be less inclined to think about. If you do not unplug your phone or laptop when it is finished charging, for example, it will continue to pull energy. Consider switching to wind or solar energy sources for your home. When the air quality is good, and the air temperature is relatively comfortable, opt for open windows and fans over air conditioning.
Reduce your gasoline consumption! When possible, walk, ride your bike, take the city bus, or carpool for commutes. Obviously with biking and walking, it is important to opt for this when air pollutant levels are low, and outdoor activities are safe.
Plan your gasoline fill ups as much as possible. Fill up your car when it is cooler outside, especially after the sun is set. Remember that ozone pollution results from mixing pollutants with sunlight. Don’t top off your gas tank, instead fill your tank when you actually need more gas.
Another great way to limit your waste is by buying local. Buying local produce means that the food you are consuming has required less energy to be made. Local produce does not require much transportation to arrive at your table, while the average fresh produce item is coming from 1,500 miles away. Consider joining a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) group, shopping at your local farmers market, and/or shopping at your local co-op grocery store.
Finally, vote with the environment in mind. Many political candidates view climate change as a hoax. The EPA is under threat, and thus, our movements towards government sanctioned clean air acts are under threat. Just because air pollutants are not always visible, does not mean they are not present and potentially harmful. Individuals can make differences in pollution levels through monitoring their own behavior, but should always also be pushing for larger industrial reform.
If you are worried about the information that you’ve read here, or just want an easy way to stay alert on matters of air quality, I recommend downloading an air quality monitoring app such as this one, which sends air quality alerts directly to your phone based on your location. Unfortunately, air pollution is a year round issue, and some cities experience peak air pollution in the winter months, which may be less noticeable, but is just as harmful. Staying informed means providing yourself with the tools necessary to better protect yourself and your community.
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