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Understanding the Air Quality Index

Brent Fox/WSKG News

A number of wildfires in Canada sent plumes of smoke into the United States and upstate New York last month. The smoke pushed the air quality into very unhealthy and even hazardous levels. WSKG's Brent Fox spoke with the director of the Center for Environmental Health, Dr. Gary Ginsberg with the New York State Department of Health, to learn more about air quality and the Air Quality Index.

Brent Fox: So let's talk about what happened back in June. So the smoke from the wildfires in Canada, it was so bad in New York state that it had some of the worst air quality in the world. How did things get so bad across such a wide area?

Gary Ginsberg: This to our knowledge, was at least the worst air pollution episode related to fine particulate matter across the whole state, a statewide event, in at least 20 years if not longer. So it is a bit unprecedented.

How did it get so bad at that particular time? You know, there's a very large land area that was on fire at that time in Canada. Our information is the fires are still burning, and may not be quite the same dimension as it was in early June. And the air flows coming down out of Canada based upon a particular pressure system that was bringing winds down from the fires in through western New York and then spreading eastward and covering the whole state.

Eventually, it hung together as a plume and made it all the way down the east coast, canceling baseball games in Philadelphia causing air alerts all the way down in the Chesapeake region.

BF: And do you think this could be something that we might see potentially more frequently now? Because, as you said, this is not something we've seen in decades.

GG: We saw not quite as bad, but we saw another uptick in particulate matter, 2.5, which is the fine particulate matter needed for an alert related to the wildfires. Again, that pattern was a little different, and a little bit less intense in late June, the last week of June. So that's twice in one month, from pretty much the same episode of intense fires in Canada. But we see seasonal fires all the time out west. Now we're seeing them in the east. So it's hard to predict, but we have to be prepared.

BF: Air Quality Index is something that 's been around for a long time, and people just usually don't pay attention to it. So what is the Air Quality Index?

GG: So AQI or Air Quality Index is what the US EPA, their health scientists have looked at what levels of different types of air pollution will potentially trigger adverse health outcomes in those breathing that air for one to several hours. They're not going to issue an alert if we think that it's a really short term event, like half an hour or so. But if it's an indication of something that's going to be for several hours, the DEC, our New York State Department of Environmental Conservation will issue an alert, the Air Quality Index by EPA, we all closely look at that.

It's an excellent forecasting tool, as well as an on the ground real time updating tool at airnow.gov. And it reports out not only particulate matter in a 2.5 micron or really fine particulate range. But it also reports separately with its own scale and its own alert system for ozone, as well as for carbon monoxide, and several other nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide. So these are the air pollutants that the U.S. EPA has national ambient air quality standards for or the NAAQS as we affectionately call them. So those NAAQS have very well known air pollutants with different trigger levels for alerting the public. Whether you're in a very sensitive group, we start with those alerts, and then when the levels get high enough, everybody falls under the alert category.

BF: And what do you think people should understand about the numbers and the colors about what those mean when they hear about them?

GG: We are spending a lot of effort especially in the last month or so on alerting the public to what they need to know and where to go to get the information both on our DOH website as well as the airnow.gov U.S. EPA website where you can put in your own zip code or your town and they'll show you all the readings around your location.


You can look at that map for your locality for your region and see whether it is green which is great. It's a nice day outside, have a blast. Or yellow, which is still okay. And everyone can still exercise freely and with whatever level of exertion even the sensitives. However, yellow is a sign that the air quality is not perfect and may be changeable. Keep your eye on it.

When you get to that level of above 100, which is orange, no matter what the pollutant is, that is the first unhealthy rating, but it's only unhealthy for the most sensitive individuals. Red conditions, the next level up is unhealthy for everyone. And again, orange and red can be changeable. It can go even worse than what we saw in early June. We got into purple and maroon. Purple is very unhealthy air and maroon is hazardous.

In early June the air looked orange to yellow. You could detect an odor that was kind of a smoky odor. It's not always going to give us those signals. It could still be unhealthy without seeing it look that bad or smelling bad. So you know, we really recommend when the health department especially is issuing an alert to go to the airnow.gov website and look at what it is in your region. DEC also has an excellent alert website and make sure that you're aware of the local conditions.

Many of the decisions about whether to have a school open or closed, whether to have certain activities going on at a summer camp, etc., are based upon local decisions based upon local conditions.