*Clears Throat*

With Poor Air Quality Alerts All Over The Place, Is It Safe For My Kids To Be Outside?

It's looking pretty apocalyptic. Here’s everything you, as a parent, should know about the Air Quality Index (AQI).

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As Canada fights to control around 9 million acres of wildfires, their neighbor to the south, the United States, is dealing with some nasty air quality. While California and the westernmost part of the country are a little more accustomed to dealing with wildfire smoke and poor air quality, those on the east coast and in the Midwest face an unfamiliar — and disconcerting — situation. And if you're a parent, you're probably wondering if it's even safe for your kids to be outside right now.

Depending on where you live, it could look downright apocalyptic out there. Are you still OK to enjoy the warmth and all the fun summer activities your kids want to do this year? Should you break out the COVID-era masks? What should you do if you start feeling sick?

Poor air quality alerts exist for a reason, and people with asthma or severe allergies already know how helpful they can be. Now, as the sun glows Barbie pink over half the U.S., it feels like the right time for the rest of us to familiarize ourselves with what the warnings mean.

What are poor air quality alerts, and how seriously should we take them?

Released by various scientific and environmental agencies across the country, air quality reports have existed for decades. Even if you live in a tiny town, your county or area of the state most likely has an air quality agency that monitors what's in the air and alerts residents to concerns.

Typically, most air quality alerts go ignored by the general population. The alerts often warn folks when pollen or ragweed counts are especially high so that people with allergies can avoid going out. And, in bigger cities, they often alert residents to smog alerts. Smog always exists, but when the weather is just right (or wrong), it can make the smog hang lower and thicker in the air, which may trigger breathing issues.

The current air quality reports center around the Canadian wildfires. The Air Quality Index says normal is 50, but Brooklyn, NY, scored a whopping AQI of 413 this week. While allergens or smog may not typically affect you, what's currently in our air differs greatly. As far west as Ohio, the Environmental Protection Agency is ranking air quality between "unhealthy for sensitive groups" and "unhealthy." It's so bad in New York that the state offered up to 1 million free N95 masks to anyone who couldn't stay in and avoid the air.

How long will the poor air quality last?

Bad news. Jennifer Gray, a CNN meteorologist, told CNN, "Canada is still early in their fire season, and it has just exploded; while some days might be better than others, this could be a problem we're talking about long term."

It gets worse. While this particular batch of fires may last well into summer and leave us coughing all season, it's only just the beginning. According to a report put out last year by the United Nations, we should all "learn to live with fire." Due to climate change, the number of extreme wildfires will increase by 30% by 2050.

Should we go outside during poor air quality alerts?

Sure, it sucks, but you should try to stay inside. For the best and most accurate advice for your family in your current location, always check the weather or the local environmental agency website.

But... you paid for swimming lessons or soccer camp. What about those outdoor extracurriculars? Many schools and camps across the eastern half of the U.S. are already being canceled or moved indoors. Some states and counties are even closing local parks to deter people from being outside. It's hard to swallow the "loss" of the money we put into our kids' summer activities, but their safety is your top priority, right?

Do air purifiers work during poor air quality alerts?

Yes! Did you buy one of those expensive tower air purifiers during the height of COVID, and now it's just sitting in the corner collecting dust? Turn that sucker on. (After you wipe off the dust, of course.) While air purifiers obviously can't pull out any toxins you've already breathed into your body, they can work to clean the air inside your home. Because, let's be real, our homes aren't air-tight — they're just slightly safer than outside.

It's also suggested that you keep windows closed and run your air conditioner. And, if you haven't put in a new HVAC filter lately, now is definitely the time. If possible, set your air conditioners to "recirculate" so you're using your already cleaned air instead of bringing in new, contaminated air.

Will masks help during poor air quality alerts?

They will, with a caveat. While those cloth and surgical masks worked well enough to stop flying mucus during COVID, you need the heavy-duty N95 masks for protection against poor air quality. This time it's about the actual air and not just "spray" from coughs or sneezes.

Experts recommend wearing an N95 or better mask over your mouth and nose whenever you go out during poor air quality warnings.

How can you tell if poor air quality is making you sick?

Before you looked directly at the neon orange sun through a smoke and smog filter or saw pictures of an eerily familiar smoke-filled Manhattan, you treated the hazy sky in your area as just another day in the city. You're not alone. Here are a few signs to look out for that may suggest you've been affected by the latest poor air quality:

  • Dry/itchy/burning eyes
  • Itchy or sore throat
  • Dry cough
  • Minor cold symptoms

More serious symptoms:

  • Wheezing
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Shortness of breath

In most cases, using allergy medicine, throat lozenges, and/or eye drops is enough to stave off the effects of a short exposure to harmful air. However, if you're wheezing or having difficulty breathing, you should report to a hospital, where they can expertly help you with your symptoms.

Will asthma inhalers help?

Yes. Definitely. Kaiser Permanente says the medicine you already use for allergies, asthma, and COPD is your first line of defense against wildfire irritants. Take your prescriptions as directed and use your rescue inhalers when necessary. Talk to your doctor if they don't offer relief.

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