How does poor air quality affect your health?

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Is it fog or smog? Know when the air quality is safe.

If you have a child with breathing issues, a parent with heart disease, or just want to know if it's safe for you to run outdoors on smoggy days, it's essential to understand the basics of air quality and how it affects the human body.

According to a recent study, the average person breathes about 20,000 liters of air a day—that's the same as 5,000 party balloons! So, it makes sense that if air pollution is present, it would hurt your health.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 3.7 million people die each year from the effects of air pollution. Approximately 80 percent of air-pollution deaths were due to coronary artery disease, while 14 percent were due to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), as reported in recent research.

The Air Quality Index, or AQI, measures current or forecasted air quality. It consists of two measures: Particulate Matter (PM) and ozone. When you hear PM, think of solid and liquid airborne particles. While tiny, these particles can be harmful to your lungs. Even healthy people may experience eye, nose, and throat irritation from high PM levels. Those with asthma tend to struggle breathing, be more susceptible to respiratory infections, and have worsened symptoms such as wheezing and coughing.

Ozone is a pungent, pale blue gas that occurs naturally in the upper atmosphere. Unfortunately, it has begun to build up at ground level, which can be bad news for our health. Like PM, it can be especially unsafe for those with asthma and lung conditions.

And, air pollution affects children more than adults. Kids spend more time playing outside, breathe more air relative to their body weight, and their lungs are still developing. A recent WHO report shows that every day, 93 percent of the world's children under the age of 15 are breathing air so polluted that it puts their health and development at serious risk. So, what can you do to keep yourself and your children healthy?

Is it fog or smog? Know when the air quality is safe.

So what are safe levels? There is a simple, color-coded system used by national and local government agencies:

Green – If you see green, go ahead and play outdoors! The PM levels are below 12.

Yellow – It's a moderate day. Unusually sensitive people should reduce time outdoors, but everyone else can continue with their normal activities. The PM level is between 12 and 35.

Orange – Children, those with heart or lung diseases (such as asthma), and older adults should stay inside on an orange day. Everyone should reduce outdoor physical activity because the PM is between 35 and 55. In Utah, children with asthma are kept indoors for recess on orange days.

Red – You know what read means: Stop. It's a strong warning that the air may be unhealthy for everyone, even those who are physically fit and healthy. Move your run to the treadmill and find indoor activities for kids, especially those with asthma. Red corresponds to a PM of 55 to 150—Utah schoolchildren are kept indoors when levels are above 90.

One last thing: Know how to check current levels. Locally, is a useful resource provided by the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality. You'll find current AQI conditions and lots of state resources. Another recommended app is AIRNow, which was created by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It's as easy as entering a ZIP code.

A healthcare plan from SelectHealth can provide the tools you need to help you live your healthiest life. Visit or call 800-538-5038 to learn more.