Air Quality Index: What to do when the air quality is bad in your area

How to protect yourself from unhealthy or hazardous air pollution.

Air pollution is more common in big cities but can happen anywhere.
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As fires ravage the West Coast of the US from Washington state to Southern California, millions of people are dealing with poor air quality in those regions and across the country, even as far away as Michigan. Smoke and other particles are creating gray (and even orange) skies, and can cause health problems ranging from trouble breathing to respiratory infections. So, what should you do if the fires are affecting the air quality where you are?

You know that pollution is harmful for your health and clean air is important. But sometimes you can feel powerless when it comes to living in an area with pollution, since you can't simply hide away inside with your air purifier forever. 

Thankfully, a resource called the Air Quality Index (AQI) was created by the US Environmental Protection Agency to help monitor air quality so you can understand the impact it may have on your health. 

What is the AQI?

The AQI reports on how clean or polluted the air in your area is, and what effects breathing the outdoor air may have on your health. The AQI forecast is available in 400 US cities, and you can view regional maps that rate the air quality across the US and Canada. The index is on a scale of 0 to 500 (0 being clean air and 500 being heavy pollution). Outside the US, you can check the World Air Quality Index for air pollution ratings across the globe.

The AQI takes into account five of the major air pollutants that are regulated under the Clean Air Act. These pollutants are ground-level ozone, particle pollution, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide. 


The Air Quality Index scale rates air quality on a scale from 0 to 500, with 0 being the cleanest to 500 being the most dangerous.

Screenshot by Mercey Livingston/CNET

What each AQI category means:

  • Good (Green): 0-50 AQI means there is little or no health risk associated with air quality.
  • Moderate (Yellow): 51-100 AQI designates acceptable air quality, but some people who are sensitive to pollution or experience breathing issues may experience adverse effects, depending on the type of contaminants in the air.
  • Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups (Orange): 101-150 means there is a health risk for children, older adults and people with heart disease and lung disease. The general healthy population isn't likely to experience health risks.
  • Unhealthy (Red): 151-200 AQI is considered unsafe and anyone could experience negative health effects from pollution in the air.
  • Very Unhealthy (Purple): 201-300 AQI is a serious health risk level for everyone and you may see a health alert on your phone or weather app. 
  • Hazardous (Maroon): 300 or greater AQI is considered hazardous and it's likely that an emergency or evacuation warning would be issued.

What to do if the air quality is poor in your area


A face mask can protect you from air pollution, as long as it's the right kind of mask.

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If the air quality in your area is compromised, there are several things you can do to protect yourself. Special attention should be paid to those who have compromised respiratory, lung or heart health, as well as children and older adults who are, in general, more vulnerable. 

If the air quality is unhealthy (101-150), the AQI website recommends that people who are sensitive to pollution (i.e. people with lung disease, asthma, children, older adults and outdoor workers) reduce or limit the time they spend working or doing activities outside. If the air quality is in a more moderate range (51-100) you can still protect yourself by reducing time spent outdoors if you're concerned that you're sensitive to pollution levels.

If the air quality falls in the unhealthy or red range (151-200), the AQI recommends that people with compromised health avoid prolonged outdoor work or activity. Everyone else who is not health-compromised should limit the time they spend outdoors. 

If the air quality is in the very unhealthy or hazardous range, chances are an emergency alert will be issued by media outlets, weather apps and more. If this is the case, everyone should avoid going outside and being exposed to the air as much as possible. People with compromised health should not go outside at all to protect themselves. 

If you are concerned about the air quality around you, wearing a face mask anytime you are exposed to the compromised air can help. Make sure your mask is rated as N95 and fits snugly over your nose and mouth. Surgical masks, medical masks and bandanas tied over your noise and mouth are not designed to filter out harmful air pollutants and will not protect you.

Now playing: Watch this: LG shows off air-purifying face mask at IFA 2020

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.