Last Updated: May 1, 2022
In the Pacific Northwest, air quality used to be a thing we took for granted. These days, with climate change and more intense wildfire seasons, we aren’t so lucky to have clean air year round. But it does motivate you to make use of clear air days and do what you can to help our planet. And if you’re a parent, you have the added worry about wildfires, not only keeping your kid safe from the fires and from hazardous air quality, but also what their future will look like with fires and bad air quality getting more intense almost every year. So this post is all about air quality – AQI – and outdoor play.
In 2020, Oregon experienced some unprecedented wildfires and smoke. Up and down the West coast. First, it was in California, then Oregon was ablaze, with fires near Detroit Lake (Beachie Creek and Lionshead fires). During this time I had a bunch of different text threads going with friends explaining AQI – Air Quality Index. What the numbers mean, how to find accurate info for your exact location, whether or not to play outside, and how to help indoor air. So here’s what I know about AQI.
What is AQI?
AQI stands for the Air Quality Index. The Index runs from 0 to 500. The higher the number the greater the air pollution. Along with the number rating, the Index is divided into six colors – green, yellow, orange, red, purple, maroon – to help visually understand “good” vs “bad”. For example, 0-50 (green) is good air quality, and 151-200 (red) is unhealthy air quality. The levels are determined by pollution particles measured by sensors all over the world. PM2.5 – fine particulate matter – determines the AQI.
I first learned about AQI in 2016 when the Eagle Creek fire burned much of the Columbia River Gorge. It was the first time I remember our house filling with ash and hazy bad air sticking around for days at a time. Since then, it’s been almost every summer that we have at least a few days of really bad AQI from wildfires. And in 2020, in Portland, we were stuck inside for 10 days. The AQI was off the charts it was so high, and we waited for the smoke to let up!
How to track AQI near you:
AQI used to be a bit more difficult to find. It’s now even in the Apple weather app! My other favorite sites and apps for AQI are: AirVisual from IQAir (they also try to predict future AQI), and in Oregon, our local state app – OregonAir.
What’s nice about the state app is that it’s using data from its own DEQ (Department of Environmental Quality), which is some of the same data other apps are pulling from, but without time lag or merged data. So if you live near one of the reporting sensors, you are seeing the latest accurate info. It’s also smart to check the time stamp of when the AQI reading was from. Especially if it’s wildfire season, as things can change quickly on the winds and if the reading hasn’t updated for two hours the info could be inaccurate and give a false sense of good air quality.
Do I really use three AQI apps? Yes, for different things. Most of the year, I just view the Air Quality rating in the Apple Weather app on my phone. (see screenshot). But if it’s fire season, and the air quality is looking bad, I get more detailed info from IQAir. Then if it’s really bad and I want even more accurate sensor location level data, I’ll look at OregonAir.
For example, if I needed to decide if I was doing an adventure day with my kiddo (being outside most of the day), or deciding whether or not to go camping etc.
AQI & Outdoor Play for Young Kids
AirNow.gov now has recommendations for schools in relation to AQI. It’s important to keep in mind that their guidance is for all school ages 0-18. But the younger you are, the more sensitive you are to air pollution and bigger impact on your lungs. Here is my modified guidelines for myself considering toddlers, preschoolers, and younger children. (Note: always consult your pediatrician about your individual child’s health needs. This chart is more cautious than the Air gov one because I don’t think young children and babies should be lumped in with teenagers -who are almost the size of adults- when it comes air quality recommendations!):
- 0-50 GOOD AQI green – Play outside! There are no restrictions.
- 51-100 MODERATE AQI yellow – Play outside. Try to limit intense exercise, and shorter duration for younger ages. 30-60 min adventure etc.
- 101-150 UNHEALTHY FOR SENSITIVE GROUPS AQI orange – Limit intense exercise, and shorter duration for younger kids (15-30 minutes etc). Watch for symptoms of asthma.
- 151-200 UNHEALTHY AQI red – Stay inside. If going bonkers inside, go out for a low intensity and short walk just to help mental spirit. ie. a casual bike walk or ride around the block. Playing in the yard for 5-15 minutes.
- 201-300+ VERY UNHEALTHY AQI purple – Stay inside!
According to Airnow.gov, ground-level ozone (air polutent) is at it’s highest level during the afternoon evening. You may already know this anecdotally! We try to get out early in the day before things get worse. And a properly worn N95 does help with smoke particulates. Cloth and paper masks do not! So for young kids, a mask for wildfire smoke is not going to be very helpful since they have a hard time properly wearing masks anyway.
AQI – Air Qality Index goes from 0-200+, and measures particles in the air – both pollution and ozone and rates it on a scale from Healthy to Hazardous.
How to decide about outdoor recreation in fire season
Fire season in Oregon is usually August and September. These are also great months for camping and outdoor recreation. But more and more we need to think about our responsibility for camping safely if it’s near or going through a fire area. My first stop is checking the Interactive Fire Map. It’s great for showing the footprint of the fire, direction, and guidelines for the area. You don’t always consider this if you’re driving, but you may be taking a route that passes a fire area. Things can also change quickly with high winds, dry temperatures, and fires merging. So consider if you will have cell service as well to check current conditions.
Another thought is that if you’re near an active and growing fire is that if things change and you’re on the roads, you could be adding to the congestion for locals trying to get away from the fire and fire personel trying to get in to help. In September 2020, two days before the fires came through Detroit Lake, a mom friend and I had planned to take our kids camping at Suttle Lake. After looking at the fire map and AQI, we decided to cancel the trip (not just for air quality in the area), but that the fire could change, and we knew there was limited cell service in the Detroit lake corridor (our route home). We are infinitely thankful that we looked at the info and made that choice.
What about Indoor Air?
Here are some tips for helping your indoor air quality during wildfire season.
- Keep windows and doors closed. When air quality starts to get really bad, it’s important to have your windows and doors closed, so you’re not bringing that air in. In a region like the Portland area, where air conditioning hasn’t been a standard thing most homes have (especially older homes), this makes it very difficult to cool your house down. As one of the ways of cooling your house, is opening the doors and windows in the cooler evening, night, or early morning hours to let the hot air out and cool air in.
- Buy an air purifier. You can buy an air purifier to help clean your indoor air (we have a few of the Coway Airmega). We got one in 2017 during a short wildfire season. I was pregnant at the time and having difficulty breathing, since we didn’t have air conditioning at home, and air quality was poor. We had to stay a couple nights at a hotel. So after that year, we prioritized getting air conditioning for our bedrooms and air purifiers.
- Tape up any air leaks. If you’re about to have a few days of really bad air quality, make sure you know where extra air is slipping in. We used painters tape to seal up our old windows, and placed heavy towels against the lower edge of the front and back door to help extra bad air from getting in. Our air purifier was already working overtime, so we wanted to be extra careful.
- Buy replacement air purifier filters ahead of time. This can be a hard one to remember and do. But almost every year, the air filters prices get jacked way up as soon as wildfires start to hit. It’s extremely frustrating! I try to buy a replacement one as soon as I put a new filter in. And keep one in my shopping cart just to monitor the price. $35 – good! $74 – not good!
I hope you’ve found these tips for air quality and outdoor play helpful!