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Health Risks of Poor Air Quality

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Health Risks of Poor Air Quality


Those of us living in the New York City area have already experienced the poor air quality caused by the wildfire smoke that began drifting into our skies this past June. It is expected that the wildfires in Canada will continue to burn for some time, so we will continue to experience ongoing air quality issues throughout the summer. As a pulmonologist and Senior Medical Director for AdvantageCare Physicians, I want to make sure that you and all New York-area residents understand the health risks of poor air quality and the steps you can take to reduce these risks.

How do I know if the air quality is unhealthy?

While the recent air pollution in the New York area was clearly visible and turned the sky red, poor air quality isn’t usually so obvious. You’ll notice more news reporting on the Air Quality Index (AQI), which measures air pollution on a scale from 0 – 500 and ranks the health risks with six categories, each with an assigned color.

  • 0 – 50 (Green) – Good
  • 51 – 100 (Yellow) – Moderate
  • 101 – 150 (Orange) – Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups
  • 151 – 200 (Red) – Unhealthy
  • 201 – 300 (Purple) – Very Unhealthy
  • 301 – 500 (Maroon) – Hazardous

What are the health effects of poor air quality?

Exposure to poor air quality can cause irritation of the eyes, nose, throat, or lungs. You may also experience fatigue, headaches, coughing, wheezing, or difficulty breathing. In more severe cases, people with certain pre-existing conditions can be at risk for heart attack, stroke, or lung cancer. If you or someone you know is experiencing these symptoms, reach out to your provider.

Who is most vulnerable to poor air quality?

Although poor air quality can affect anyone, having a pre-existing lung or other medical condition can put you at higher risk for breathing difficulties and other issues, especially for children, senior citizens, and people who are pregnant. Conditions that can put you at high risk include:

  • Asthma
  • Heart Disease
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Immunodeficiency, such as HIV/AIDS

How can you keep yourself and your family safe?

There are simple steps you can take to reduce the risk of health complications or symptoms from exposure to poor air quality:

  • Stay indoors and cancel/postpone unnecessary outdoor activities.
  • Close all windows and doors.
  • Use air purifiers/filters or run your air conditioning unit with a clean filter.
  • If you own a window air conditioning unit, seal it to the window as tightly as possible. Run your air conditioner on the recirculating mode so it doesn’t pull in air from outside.
  • Avoid using bathroom fans and fan hoods from the stove, as these can sometimes pull in air from outside.
  • If you must travel, limit your time outdoors and wear a mask. N95 masks provide the best protection against air pollutants. If you have a rescue inhaler, carry it with you at all times. 
  • Once the air quality improves and reaches healthy levels again, be sure to check your air filter. You’ll likely need to clean it out.

For the most up-to-date information about the air quality where you live, visit airnow.gov.


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