Save your breath: What to know about air quality alerts

  • Anyone with lung disease or heart disease should be careful when an air quality alert is issued.
  • If you are at risk, stay indoors during an alert, ideally in an air-conditioned environment if it is hot outside.

We all breathe, and that means we can all experience the effects of air pollution. Here’s what you should know the next time an air quality alert is issued in our area.

What is the air quality index (AQI)?  The AQI is a number that is used to report air quality. It runs from 0 to 500. The higher the number, the greater the health risk.

When the AQI is: Air quality is:
0-50 Good
51-100 Moderate
101-150 Unhealthy for sensitive groups
151-200 Unhealthy
201-300 Very unhealthy
301-500 Hazardous

What kind of pollutants are monitored by the AQI?  It monitors ground-level ozone and airborne particles, the two air pollutants that pose the greatest threat to health in the United States. Airborne particles include particles emitted from vehicles, industrial sites, woodstoves and wildfires, as well as activities like crushing and grinding operations and some agricultural processes. Ground-level ozone is a gas that forms when certain pollutants react in sunlight and stagnant air. These pollutants come from burning coal, gasoline and oil, as well as from natural sources.

Who is at risk when there is an air quality alert?  Anyone with lung disease or heart disease should be careful when an air quality alert is issued. That includes people with conditions like asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, coronary artery disease and congestive heart failure. Young children and older adults are also more likely to be affected by air pollution.

What should people in these at-risk groups do during an alert? Stay indoors, ideally in an air-conditioned environment if it is hot outside. Make sure your medicines are up-to-date and that you have a care plan in place if symptoms like fatigue, coughing or shortness of breath occur. Seek care from your doctor if your symptoms persist or worsen and are not controlled by your medicines.

If you or a family member are at risk for air quality issues, consider bookmarking the Minnesota Pollution Agency’s current air quality page to stay informed about air quality. You can also sign up to receive forecasts and alerts by email.

What about people who are not in an at-risk group?  While you are not likely to be affected by low levels of air pollution, the effects of air pollution do accumulate over time. Be cautious when an air quality alert is issued: avoid heavy exertion outside, try to remain indoors during the heat of the day, and avoid areas with heavy traffic. Be aware that everyone may begin to experience health effects when the AQI rises above 151.

In general, how is Minnesota’s air quality?  Compared to other states, we’re in the middle of the pack. But the state has made progress, and our air quality has been improving over the last five years or so.

What can individuals do to improve air quality?  There’s not much we can do to directly affect ground-level ozone, but we can take steps to reduce airborne particles. It’s important that we all try to do our part, especially when an air quality alert is issued. That means driving less, using electric engines instead of gas-powered engines for mowing and other tasks, and skipping the backyard bonfire.


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