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unhealthy air

What To Do When The Air Quality Is Unhealthy

Posted on July 10, 2024 by Elizabeth Swanson
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Climate change is fueling an increase in air pollution. This summer, wildfire smoke is expected to shroud cities across the country—worsening the air quality.  

“Air pollution in Detroit usually comes from vehicle emissions and industrial facilities,” says Ikenna Okereke, M.D., a thoracic surgeon at Henry Ford Health. “But an increase in wildfires is dramatically worsening the air quality. Unfortunately, climate change will cause wildfires to become more frequent and unhealthy air may become habitual unless we work at the federal level to combat this.”

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) measures air quality on a scale from 0 to 500. The higher the number, the worse the air pollution. Last summer, the air quality in Detroit shot up to 230 due to wildfire smoke:

  • 0 to 50 is good air quality
  • 51 to 100 is moderate air quality
  • 101 to 150 is air quality that’s unhealthy for sensitive groups
  • 151 to 200 is unhealthy air quality for everyone
  • 201 to 300 is very unhealthy air quality for everyone
  • 301 and up is hazardous air quality for everyone

Symptoms & Health Effects Of Poor Air Quality 

When exposed to poor air quality, you may initially experience coughing, a sore throat or itchy eyes. For those with underlying lung disease such as COPD, severe asthma or emphysema, exposure to poor air quality may cause respiratory distress or failure.   

"Even before the wildfires last summer, Detroit was ranked as the fifth most challenging city in the country to live with asthma," says Dr. Okereke. "This ranking is based upon the prevalence of asthma, number of emergency department visits secondary to asthma and deaths due to asthma. But worsening air quality due to wildfire smoke could even worsen the asthma burden."

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Most young, healthy people can tolerate a few hours of exposure to poor air quality, but continual exposure can result in long-term health problems such as:

  • Lung-related diseases
  • Heart disease
  • Preterm birth and pregnancy complications
  • Decreased immune health
  • Mental health disorders

“Air pollution can affect every organ in the body—not just the lungs,” says Dr. Okereke. “Within Wayne county, in areas that we know have worsened air quality, there is an increased incidence of chronic disease. Prolonged exposure to poor air quality leads to long-term disease.” 

How To Protect Yourself When The Air Quality Is Unhealthy

When the air quality is unhealthy, Dr. Okereke recommends taking these steps to reduce your exposure:

  • Stay inside. “In general, I counsel people to cancel outdoor events—even for their kids—when the air quality index hits 151,” says Dr. Okereke. “But those with severe asthma, COPD or emphysema may develop symptoms at lower air quality indexes.” You can check the air quality in your area on airnow.gov. Certain air purifiers may also help to purify the air in your home.
  • Wear a mask when you’re outside. If you are elderly or in a high-risk population, wear an N95 mask. If you’re healthy, Dr. Okereke says any mask will do.
  • If you have asthma, keep your maintenance medication and inhaler on hand. As you may not be able to predict when the air quality will worsen, it’s best to ensure you always have a supply. And last but not least, if you’re experiencing shortness of breath or any alarming symptoms, head to the ER or urgent care right away. 

Reviewed by Ikenna Okereke, M.D., system director of thoracic surgery at Henry Ford Health.

Categories : FeelWell
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