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The Air Quality Index

Using Air Quality Information to Protect Yourself From Outdoor Air Pollution

The Air Quality Index, or AQI, is the standard system that state and local air pollution control programs use to notify the public about levels of air pollution. The AQI tracks levels of two pollutants-ozone (smog) and particle pollution (tiny particles from ash, vehicle exhaust, soil dust, pollen, and other pollution). AQI levels are reported in newspapers, radio, television, and web sites. AQI levels are reported year-round, as particle pollution can be a health threat any month. Ozone is a particular problem from May through October, depending on your region's weather. Particle pollution is often highest in the west in the winter and in the east in the summer.

Keeping track of the current air quality information can help you plan your activities year-round so that you can takes steps to protect yourself, children, and others to unhealthy levels of air pollution. This is especially important for people who are sensitive to air pollution, including children, people with asthma and other lung diseases, the elderly, as well as those who exercise outdoors--who may view themselves as "too healthy" to be affected by smog or particle pollution. Particle pollution can be especially dangerous to those with cardiovascular diseases, like heart attacks, high blood pressure, or strokes or with diabetes. Bottom line: breathing dirty air can affect anyone-both immediately and in the long-run!

How Does the Air Quality Index Work?
In over 700 counties across the nation, air pollution levels are measured daily and ranked on a scale of 0 for pristine air all the way up to 500 for air pollution levels that pose immediate danger to the public (fortunately, we do not have pollution levels that high in this country any more). The AQI further breaks air pollution levels into six categories, each of which has a descriptor (name), an associated color, and advisory statements to go along with it.


Index Value




0 to 50




51 to 100



Unusually sensitive individuals should limit prolonged outdoor exertion

101 to 150

Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups


Children, active adults, and people with respiratory disease, such as asthma, cardiovascular disease, or diabetes should limit prolonged outdoor exertion

151 to 200



Everyone may begin to experience health effects and should limit prolonged outdoor exertion; members of sensitive groups may experience more serious effects

201 to 300

Very Unhealthy


Everyone may experience more serious effects and should limit outdoor exertion

301 to 500



The entire population is likely to be affected. Everyone should avoid all physical activity outdoors.

What Can You Do to Protect Yourself and Your Family?

  • Don't assume that you're safe just because you're healthy! Ozone and particle pollution can threaten anyone's health. Be aware of how you feel on high pollution days and take steps to help protect yourself!
  • Are you or someone in your family sensitive to ozone or particle pollution? Children, the elderly, people with breathing problems including asthma, people with cardiovascular diseases, and adults who are active outdoors, including outdoor workers and healthy exercisers, are all considered "sensitive groups". They are the first to feel the effects of ozone and particle pollution, and they need to take extra steps to protect themselves from harm.
  • Keep track of air pollution levels. Find out if the AQI is reported in your area, which will give you the previous day's information. You may also have access to an air quality forecast, which is even better. Ask your local newspaper or weathercaster to report the air quality forecasts.
  • If the day's ozone level is unhealthy, adjust your plans for the day. Avoid prolonged vigorous activity outdoors. The health effects of ozone are worsened over extended periods of exposure, and by the deep, rapid breathing that accompanies exercise. Plan the most strenuous activities for the early morning hours, which in most areas occur before ozone levels climb.
  • If the day's particle pollution level is unhealthy, adjust your plans for the day. Stay away from high-traffic areas, and do not exercise near those areas.
  • Remember that particle pollution can be high even inside your home. Take steps to reduce your exposure to indoor particles: Eliminate smoking indoors. Vent all gas or other combustion appliances directly to the outdoors and do not burn wood, which creates particles both indoors and out.
  • Speak out for clean air. Let your local officials know that you are concerned about the effect air pollution may be having on your health, and that you support stronger pollution control measures.

How Do You Find Air Quality Information?

  • Air quality forecasts may be included as part of your local weather forecast on TV and radio, or printed in the newspaper. If it is not available, call your local media and tell them you would like them to offer this important public health service. AQI levels are also available online, through local agencies and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
  • State and local air pollution control agencies are responsible for collecting air quality data and reporting the AQI. You can call them for current information if it is not available through the media. A directory of state and local agencies is available from STAPPA/ALAPCO, their national membership association.
  • The EPA issues year-round AQI forecasts for 46 states plus the District of Columbia . Forecasts include animated pictures of ozone and particle pollution levels superimposed over a map of the U.S. The map illustrates how pollution levels change and move throughout the day. It is "real time" information, so you can see current outdoor air quality. The EPA also makes it available to local weather forecasters through national weather service providers.

This article was published by the American Lung Association.

Air Pollution in Los Angeles County
Air Quality in Large Buildings
Determining the Quality of Indoor Air
Air Pollution by AFFA
Outdoor Air Pollution Fact Sheet
The Air Quality Index
Particle Pollution Fact Sheet

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