By Brad Bowman
The first week of May is Air Quality Awareness Week, and the Kentucky Division of Air Quality encourages Kentuckians — especially those with respiratory conditions — to become familiar with the Air Quality Index, or AQI.
“The Air Quality Index is an easy way to check how clean the air is before you enjoy outdoor activities,” Melissa Duff, director for the Division of Air Quality (DAQ) said. “Healthy, clean air is important for everyone, but it’s especially important for people with asthma and other health problems.”
The AQI is calculated from the measured concentrations of four major air pollutants regulated by the Clean Air Act: ground level ozone, particle pollution, carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), when the AQI reaches 101 or higher, sensitive groups with lung diseases such as asthma, emphysema or chronic bronchitis should have a plan to change their medications or modify daily activities.
“Data from Kentucky’s air monitoring network is used to calculate the AQI for major metro areas across the commonwealth,” Duff said.
During ozone season, Kentuckians can monitor air pollution levels measured by the Air Quality Index (AQI) at AirNow.gov for their locality or wherever they plan to travel this year.
The AQI is especially helpful during ozone season, May 1 – September 30, when sunlight and warm weather can cause air pollutants to mix together and create ground-level ozone. Ground-level ozone is a potent pollutant that can cause breathing problems, especially for those with asthma and other lung problems.
It’s no coincidence Air Quality Awareness Week and Asthma Awareness Month both happen in May. As temperatures begin to rise, activities like mowing the lawn and filling up the gas tank can increase air pollution, which at certain levels, can be dangerous for Kentuckians with asthma.
When AQI levels increase during ozone season, it can affect everyone differently.
Roberta Burnes, a DAQ environmental education specialist, considers herself part of the sensitive group category, but said her asthma isn’t as severe as others who could experience more severe health complications during the summer when there’s an increase of pollutants like ground level ozone.
“It doesn’t mean that I would stop exercising or stop going outside. It means that I should probably take my inhaler with me on my walks or bike rides just in case I have an asthma attack,” Burnes said. “There’s a lot of things that can trigger asthma in the summer, from air pollution to pollen.”
Burnes said that it’s important for affected Kentuckians to have medication information, as well as a plan to treat their asthma symptoms, how to monitor breathing and the steps to take in the event of a medical emergency.
According to the Kentucky Asthma Management Program within the Kentucky Department for Public Health, asthma action plans provide important links between the person with asthma, caregivers, health care providers and liaisons (such as school nurses).
If a child has asthma, parents should ensure the child’s school has an asthma action plan on file, Kentucky Asthma Management Program Manager Rahel Basse advised. Asthma action plans can be easily completed in the health care provider’s office with the use of electronic health records. The Allergy and Asthma Foundation of America (AAFA) and American Lung Association (ALA) also have downloadable asthma action plans on their websites.
Kentuckians with asthma have to deal with many kinds of environmental asthma triggers both indoors and outdoors. In fact, air quality is often worse indoors. The EPA estimates that concentrations of some pollutants can be 2 to 5 times higher indoors than outside.
“Indoor environmental asthma triggers often arise from unexpected sources. Bedding, stuffed toys, and carpets can harbor dust mites. Pets shed “pet dander” – small particles of skin that can get into the air,” Basse said. “Candles, air fresheners, and household cleaning products can also contribute to poor indoor air quality, which can lead to asthma attacks.”
Using this standardized asthma home environment checklist, developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S. Department for Housing and Urban Development, Basse said can help identify common environmental triggers.
During ozone season and Air Quality Awareness week, Burnes encourages everyone to be “air aware” and to think of how we all contribute to air pollution — both for the health of Kentuckians and the environment.