I went out for a walk in the morning on the first Monday in February. It was supposed to be a nice day with unusually mild temperatures. Given a recent show event, mild air would be a good thing - right? But as I was walking I noticed that I didn’t feel great. My head just began to feel so congested and I could tell that I was a bit more winded as I went up inclines.
Usually when I return home after a brisk walk I feel invigorated. But when I came through the doors of my condo I felt more spent than anything. What was going on here? I took off my coat and began to look at my iPhone to see if I had any e-mails. I also took a look at the weather.
Imagine my surprise on a February day to see a warning across the top of the page stating that the there was an air quality alert in effect for sensitive groups. Who is in a sensitive group? According to the website phys.org, this includes: The elderly, children, and people with lung disease are vulnerable to the effects of ozone pollution; and the elderly, children and those with heart and lung disease are at risk from particulate matter. These groups should reduce their exertion outdoors.
Being a bit of a doubter, I went to the weather channel page to confirm which groups were subject to this warning (though you think by this point I would have the drill down). I clearly fell into the group that covered heart ailments. Plus, I’m sure that it did not help that I have a deviated septum which causes all sorts of grief to my sinuses, especially during poor air quality days. No wonder I felt less than optimal.
But good grief, it was February, I thought to myself. Air quality alert days belong only in summer months when the temperature and humidity are off the charts. But I was wrong. Later in the day, my Washington Post news brief gave me the 411 on why the air was so bad on a winter day. The article confirmed that this unusual event had also resulted in an unmistakable haze in the Washington DC area sky. This was the result of a “stout capping inversion which trapped a cocktail of air pollutants from wood burning and vehicle emissions near the ground.”
Wow - were they talking about Guinness Stout? I know some people who might favor that type of weather inversion. But our funky weather that day had nothing to do with beer. And seriously - the only cocktail I wanted to confront at that point was something like a Manhattan or a Martini!
This is how the website for the Mother Nature Network (MNN.com) explained what was happening in the DC area that Monday:
The Mother Nature Network reminds us that we are fortunate to be living today and not in 1948. That is because we have clean air policies/regulations. That was not the case in 1948, when a temperature inversion trapped a mass of toxic smog over the Donora, Pennsylvania region for five days, claiming 20 lives and causing respiratory problems for more than 6,000. Nor was it the case in 1952 London, when a similar event sickened more than 100,000 and claimed the lives of an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 people. Yikes!
So how can I protect myself from future capping inversions? Or are they so isolated that it isn’t worth the brain power to figure out how to avoid future air disturbances to my own delicate heart/sinus balance? I think the answer is that while they are isolated, there are other weather occurrences that are just as likely to cause my heart and my head issues going forward. I mean, in the summer we have what seems like countless weather alert days when weather teams warn those in the sensitive groups to not go out, or at least to be forewarned when you open the door.
But maybe you missed the news and weather in the morning and you’re ready to step out the door. What is the quickest way to figure out whether the air is your friend or foe on a particular day. Like so many things, all you need to do is refer to your smartphone. Just pull up your weather app, which I’m pretty sure you have looked at many times before. But usually, you’re just checking the temperature, or whether it’s raining or snowing, or how windy it is, or even when the sun is going to rise and set on a particular day. But you need to just keep scrolling.
You will eventually get to a measure called the Air Quality Index. What is this index all about? Well, you’ll see a number for where a particular day falls on the index, and then a word that describes the air quality like Good, Moderate, etc. For more of an explanation of why this index exists, and what it all means, I turned to the website for weather.gov. This site in turn referred me to “A Guide to Your Air Quality and Health”, which appears on the airnow.gov website which is maintained by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
According to the EPA, here is how the index works: “Think of the AQI as a yardstick that runs from 0 to 500. The higher the AQI value, the greater the level of air pollution and the greater the health concern. For example, an AQI value of 50 represents good air quality with little or no potential to affect public health, while an AQI value over 300 represents air quality so hazardous that everyone may experience serious effects.” The levels of health concerns set by the applicable air quality number include: good, moderate, unhealthy for sensitive groups, unhealthy, very unhealthy and hazardous. Wow – I don’t know if I’ve ever seen (or ever want to see) air quality so bad that everyone will be seriously impacted.
The level of health concern I need to be especially sensitive to is unhealthy for sensitive groups. The air quality index number for this category is 101 to 150. So you might be needing more precision regarding who falls in the sensitive group category. Well, in addition to falling within a sensitive group, you may find that the pollutant that is at issue may be especially bad for certain members of the group. If it is ozone, then people with lung disease, children, older adults, and people who are active outdoors are considered sensitive and therefore are at a great risk. If it is particle pollutants, then people with heart or lung disease, older adults, and children are considered sensitive and therefore are at a great risk.
Do we need to be overly concerned about the air quality index. The EPA says: In many U.S. communities, AQI values are usually below 100, with higher values occurring just a few times a year. Larger cities typically have more air pollution than smaller cities, so their AQI values may exceed 100 more often. AQI values higher than 200 are infrequent, and AQI values above 300 are extremely rare—they generally occur only during events such as forest fires.” If you want more definitive data on your city and track air quality trends , EPA refers you to “AirCompare” at www.epa.gov/aircompare/.
It is a little discouraging that bad air quality can cause such a marked decrease in my ability to function outside. But what is encouraging is that I know this and that someone puts out a measure that helps me act with common sense, and it’s a measure that is so easily available. I mean, I always look at my weather app before I go outside to see how to dress and what to take with me. So now I just need to very slightly modify my routine and scroll just a little further down on my weather app. And if it says unhealthy for sensitive groups, I need to pause and either figure out how to minimize my outdoor time or reschedule it. Because the only cap I want to see is one that I wear on my head, not one that impacts the air.
Melanie discovered that she had heart failure in 2013. She spent the next 7 years learning how to live with the condition, and how to achieve balance and personal growth. Then in October 2020, she received a heart transplant. This blog is about her journey of the heart.