Keep up with your air quality

This exercise is a part of Educator Guide: Health Effects of Climate Extremes and Thermal Technology / View Guide

Directions for teachers:
Engage students with this quick activity on the health effects of wildfire smoke and ask them to visit the AirNow website to look up their local air quality index. For more on the composition and properties of air and wildfire smoke, check out the lesson plans in the educator guide “Wildfires May Boost Urban Ozone.”

Open this activity with a class discussion and ask your students to name some pollutants that they know are present in the air. Then ask students to read the Science News article “Wildfires aren’t going away. Here’s how smoke can affect your health” and do the short activity below to begin or end class or assign it as homework before a unit on weather, natural disasters or properties of gases.

Add the suggested extension question or use the graph and visualization from Analyze This: Wildfires are pumping more pollution into U.S. skies to take a deeper dive into data showing estimated exposure to harmful particles from wildfire smoke.

Directions for students:
Read the Science News article “Wildfires aren’t going away. Here’s how smoke can affect your health” and answer the questions below as directed by your teacher.

1. Who are the experts interviewed in the article? Introduce each person with their job title and where they work. Do you think they are reliable sources on this topic? Explain why.

The experts are Jeffrey Brook, who is an air pollution exposure scientist from the University of Toronto; Katelyn O’Dell, who is an atmospheric scientist at George Washington University; and Sarah Henderson, who is an environmental epidemiologist at the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control. They are reliable sources on this topic because of their credentials and the amount of time they’ve studied the health effects of wildfire smoke.

2. What is the AQI and what is its purpose? What does it indicate? Describe the range of possible scores and what they mean for health. Look at the box titled “Gauging air quality” in the Science News article and visit the AirNow website to help you answer these questions.

AQI stands for air quality index. It is how the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports air quality to the public. AQI is an indicator for different types of air pollution, including ground-level ozone, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide. It ranges from 0-500. An AQI of 0-50 is good, 51-100 is moderate, 101-150 is unhealthy for sensitive groups, 151-200 is unhealthy, 201-300 is very unhealthy and 301-500 is hazardous. AQI is not the exact measurement of a pollutant’s concentration, but it can be converted to concentration using this EPA site.

3. What are health effects that can occur from exposure to unhealthy AQI levels? Use both the Science News article and the AirNow website to answer the question.

PM2.5 is fine particulate matter that can travel deep into the lungs. For people with preexisting respiratory conditions, such as asthma, shorter-term exposure can cause symptoms such as coughing or difficulty breathing. Long-term exposure can affect the lungs and heart. There is evidence that exposure of developing fetuses to wildfire smoke can reduce infant birth weights. Gases present in wildfire smoke, such as ozone, can cause respiratory symptoms, and benzene and formaldehyde are carcinogens, which means there is evidence that they can cause cancer.

4. Visit and enter your zip code. What are the current AQI scores for your area? Include what each score measures. Check the air quality forecast: is anything predicted to change over the next few days?

Student answers will vary. For Washington, D.C., the current AQI score for PM2.5 is 64, which is moderate. The ozone score is 49 and the PM10 score is 26, which are both good. The forecast is that the ozone score will increase to moderate over the next two days.

5. Given your area’s current AQI score, are there possible health effects from spending time outdoors? If so, what are they? Would you feel comfortable doing outdoor activities?

The moderate level of PM2.5 pollution could cause respiratory effects for people in sensitive groups, such as people with asthma. Given the moderate score and that I’m not sensitive to air pollution, I would feel comfortable doing outdoor activities.

Extension: Read the article “Analyze This: Wildfires are pumping more pollution into U.S. skies.” With a partner, discuss what data or other information could be useful to include as background in the article “Wildfires aren’t going away. Here’s how smoke can affect your health” that interviews pollution experts. Then, write a short paragraph summarizing the important information and explain where it would best be inserted into the article.   

It could be worthwhile to know which methods are valuable to gather data on air pollution. The “Analyze This” article covers the methods used in one study. There are 2,000 air-monitoring stations across the United States that measure and record PM2.5 levels. By pairing these data with satellite images, researchers can deduce how much PM2.5 in the area is due to wildfire smoke plumes. For the areas without a monitoring station, researchers can use satellite images and computer modeling to predict PM2.5 levels.

I would insert this paragraph in the “What’s in wildfire smoke” section of the article, where PM2.5 is introduced. It would help the reader better understand the conversation if they knew how PM2.5 levels are measured.