What Is AQI In Terms Of Air Quality ?

ByMarc Silberberg


Today I checked my phone for the AQI (air quality index) and was relieved to read that it was 76. As you will note later in this article this number is in the moderate range and is actually considered good in relation to all the bad air we have been having lately here in New York. It is fascinating for a nonscientist or meteorologist like myself to learn just what is going on that is causing the astronomical rise in the AQI this summer. Unfortunately, I read that there is another smoke cloud coming in again from Canada which will once again affect our state’s air quality.

According to the Washington Post, the smoke from the Canadian wildfires can damage the lungs when small particles from the smoke enter the bloodstream through the lungs as we breathe. We have learned from the Covid 19 virus that masks are not the protection we hoped they would be. This is bad news for people with sensitive immune systems such as children whose lungs have yet not fully developed and the elderly whose lungs may not be at full function due to certain diseases.

Alas, the human brain is always finding new ways to solve the world’s problems. Some green groups deny any human intervention to the excess of trees in this planet’s forests. In a perfect world they would be correct as G-D does protect nature but unfortunately when humans interfere with the natural setup of our forests outside intervention is required. Controlled fires are one way to help tone down the number of trees and debris and as you will read later in this article there is a new and creative way that scientists are dealing with the problem of excess trees that even the more dire environmentalists could not object to.

Folks are always concerned about the indoor and outdoor air quality around their homes. Without checking the air quality index people can miss finding out about a problem in the air because not all air quality abnormalities are easily noticed. For example, you might be living with false security in your home believing that all is okay with the air quality in it. You try to change your HVAC filters regularly and air out your home occasionally by opening the windows to let in some fresh air. But is the air you let into your home clean, or will it make the air quality in your home worse? Not opening your windows could keep bad air in the home so what is a typical homeowner to do?

Changing your HVAC filters regularly is certainly a responsible way to keep your home air clean. However, the air quality in your home is affected by the air quality outside. Just looking at your dirty air filters will give you an idea as to how much pollution is entering your home.

We are aware that cities such as Los Angeles have poor air quality, and this can be seen clearly by the naked eye by looking up at the sky and noticing the haze. There are certain cities such as New York that may have clear and sunny skies on a typical spring or summer day yet lately their citizens who are health compromised may feel a heaviness in their chest and a burning in their eyes.

On Wednesday, July 12, 2023, an air quality advisory was issued by Basil Seggos, Commissioner of the DEC (New York State Department of Environmental Conservation) and by Dr James McDonald, commissioner of the DOH (State Department of Health) for the entire Metropolitan New York City and Long Island localities. The concern at that time was a pollutant called Ozone which caused the air quality index to go above the acceptable range of 100.

Why is Ozone a Problem?

We have been told by environmentalists that we must protect the ozone layer so how can ozone itself be the issue? There are two types of ozone and surface ozone pollution is not the same as the protective layer of ozone that is needed in the upper atmosphere. Ground-level ozone will cause photochemical smog originating from car exhaust and other harmful emissions from out of the area such as the Canadian forest fire pollution.

When sunlight reacts with the harmful emissions from cars and factories such as nitrogen oxide this type of ozone pollution is produced. This specific pollution is caused by a chemical reaction and is not produced on its own. Although usually colorless, this type of ozone produces hazy skies reducing daylight clarity with the ozone levels lessening at night.

Other air pollutants include, Nitrogen dioxide, Carbon Monoxide, Sulfur Dioxide and Particulate Matter. Here are some details of these pollutants.

1: Nitrogen Dioxide is released from fuels from factories and vehicles that burn this gas.

2: Carbon Monoxide is released when wood, charcoal, natural gas, kerosene and petrol burn incompletely giving off this odorless, tasteless and colorless gas making it quite dangerous since it is only detected either by physical sickness or CM monitors.

3: Sulfur Dioxide is a colorless but odorous gas that is quite smelly when inhaled. When fossil fuels such as oil, coal ore smelting minerals containing sulfur burn this gas is the result.

4: Particulate Matter is a combination of some, or all of the above gases and its presence is the indicator of air pollution.

The Canadian Forest Fires

When I was a kid, as the summer approached, ads were presented on TV and billboards with Smokey the bear announcing that, “Only you can prevent forest fires’ ‘. However, in this century just putting out your family bonfires in the park is not going to prevent the type of fires that have been raging this summer in Canada. From some information that this author has put together it seems that these fires do rage each year as there is a time of the year called, “fire season”. However, these fires have become uncontrolled due to what is going on in the forest, namely the reduction or elimination of brush and tree controls. If there are too many trees in a forest and together with brush and low-lying bushes then the chances become greater for forest fires to rage out of control. Conservationists are against cutting and burning any excess wood in forests and expound that we should leave nature alone. However, this point of view is not working because there is too much going on in the forest to keep the fires under control.

The perfect storm of hot temperatures and dry climate conditions have caused the burning of over 27 million acres in Canada. Because of the continuous burning a smoky haze has decreased the air quality not only in this region but in our country as well. Depending on which way the wind blows determines in which state or city the haze will appear. Art Perryman, the director of New York State Forest Rangers, is pressing for the government to modernize the fire management laws. He advocated controlled burning of trees in upstate New York Parks such as those in the Catskill and Adirondack mountains. If the diseased and dead wood and brush would be controlled and burned under specified conditions there would be much less fuel for wildfires to take over. Interestingly, controlled burns are permitted for New York’s Long Island Pine Barrens and Albany’s Pine Bush.

With such management of forest fires in place, New Yorkers can still benefit from forest parks while keeping the animals and other wildlife safe. Also, the sending of our New York Forest Rangers to Quebec to help put out their forest fires has given them more experience in fighting their own state fires in the future. The forest rangers who were brought to Quebec gained between five and ten years of experience in the short time they were putting out fires in Canada.

An Epidemic of Trees?

Yes, as we noted above, too many trees cause forest fires. Stefan Reinhold, a Boulder, Colorado parks forester, stated recently that there is an epidemic of trees in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. The usual remedy of burning trees can cause uncontrolled fires and foresters are discovering an alternate solution to controlled fires by selecting certain trees to be sawed, stripping the branches from the trunks, collecting the chippings, and putting them in piles. How will foresters destroy this debris?

Novel Innovations in Nature to Combat Forest Fires

The quandary of what to do with those piles of debris has a very surprising and creative solution, that is mushrooms. Fungus, another name for mushrooms, are unique in their ability to transform debris from trees, plastics, and garbage into nutrient rich soil.

Forester Jeffrey Ravage of Denver characterizes the process of saprophytic fungi feeding off dead organic matter as “cold fire” meaning that these types of mushrooms can do what real fire can do without the threat of uncontrolled fires. “With the right kind of fungi, we can do in five years what nature could take from fifty to one hundred years, namely, to create organic soil”, says Ravage, confidently.

The root of the fungus called mycelium, is being turned into a liquid so that it can be used in larger scales. These liquid mushrooms can be sprayed across hundreds and hundreds of acres of forests. Cold fire methods of thinning the forests are still in the experimental stage even though this method is showing success by turning the negative into positive. Even stanch environmentalists may not have a problem with this method of taming the epidemic of trees.

Air Quality Index (AQI)

You may often find that the air quality index is included in the weather report on your smartphone, especially with all the outside air pollution coming from Canada. This index warns those people who are young, elderly or have breathing problems such as asthma to stay indoors when the air quality is poor. The air quality index ranges from 0 ( rare) to 500 with a value of 50 or less considered good and over 300 is considered hazardous. When the AQI is higher than 100 the air quality is considered unhealthy. During the smoke haze from Canada, the air quality in New York reached over 400.

The air quality index is also displayed in a simplified color-coded system. Here is a summary of such a color-coded chart of the air quality index.

  • Green: 0 – 50 = GOOD
  • Yellow: 51 – 100 = MODERATE
  • Red: 151 – 200 = UNHEALTHY
  • Purple: 201 – 300 = VERY UNHEALTHY

Final Words

Many years ago, our town planted small trees adjacent to the sidewalk in front of our house. These trees are spaced nicely apart so they do not touch each other. Looking at how magnificently these trees have branched out over the years got me thinking about how trees multiply and expand in our country’s forests. No human being is able to stop lightning from striking our precious forests but we can minimize the devastating effects that summer forest fires cause.

Although an orange sunset may look appealing to those with an artistic flair such as painting or photography, this color sunset is a true sign of an unhealthy air quality. This year’s wildfire season in Canada has been called the worst fire season since governments began tracking the intensity of the fires. Some blame these uncontrollable fires on climate change which has led to drier and warmer weather causing the trees and other vegetation to become dry and flammable.

Due to environmentalists’ concerns, new laws have been implemented in Canada mostly stopping controlled burns in the forests which used to lessen the risk of dangerous out of control forest fires. Not only have these fires intruded on American air and wind but the smoke has traveled as far as Spain causing hazy skies. Canadian liberals claim that most of their forest fires are caused by lightning and the impact of climate change. However, contrary to this way of thinking, experts in New York State insist that you cannot blame the frequency of forest fires on climate change and disagree claiming most fire incidents are caused by human behavior just like Smokey the Bear taught us many years ago.

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