How can I safely spend time outdoors?

This article was written by Eden Harris. Eden has a B.S.E in Bioengineering from the University of Pennsylvania. She is passionate about renewable energy, sustainable water infrastructure, and zero waste efforts.

As we reach our sixth month of COVID-induced lockdown, the outdoors has become a refuge and a constant for people of all ages. From parks and playgrounds to outdoor dining, mandates for social distancing have encouraged us to swap traditionally-indoor activities for outdoor ones. However, California’s ongoing fires have narrowed the range of safe outdoor activities considerably due to high levels of PM2.5 (particles, often from exhaust or wood-burning, smaller than 2.5 microns).

There are a variety of maps available to monitor real-time air quality locally and globally. Here are a few:

IQAir, a global map of air quality

PurpleAir, another global map of air quality capable of averaging data over your desired time frame

BAAQMD, Bay Area Air Quality Management District, a local air quality monitoring tool AirNow, an EPA air quality tool

The following AirNow.gov chart describes safe limits for outdoor activities for general and sensitive groups:

“Sensitive groups” include people with asthma or other forms of lung disease, the elderly, the very young (under 12 years), and pregnant women. As per the NY Department of Health, health effects from PM2.5 may include eye, nose, throat and lung irritation, coughing, sneezing, runny nose, and shortness of breath. Elevated levels of PM2.5 may also aggravate underlying conditions such as asthma and heart disease.

What does this mean going forward? 
While the air quality is in the yellow zone or above, certain individuals may experience negative health effects. This means it may be necessary to limit outdoor time while maintaining safe air quality indoors. Deciding when to close all windows depends on individual discretion based on comfort level and underlying health conditions. The Los Angeles Times and New York Times both provide instructions on building a low-cost, DIY air filter using a box fan and HEPA filter to ensure clean indoor air despite variable outdoor conditions.

Setting limits on time outdoors is also dependent on activity. Sitting or walking outdoors requires significantly less heavy breathing than high-intensity activities, such as biking or running. A 2016 report by the California Air Resources Board (CARB) explains that “during exercise”, people can increase their air intake as much as 10 to 20 times over their resting level. Increased breathing rates bring more pollution deep into the lungs.” CARB also notes that individuals tend to breathe through their mouths rather than noses during exercise, bypassing filtration from the nasal passages.

Navigating this climate crisis amidst a pandemic creates unprecedented challenges. These resources, paired with a safe indoor air filtration method, can help ease some uncertainty to maintain safe access to clean air.

This article was published on Robot Yams with permission from Eden Harris.

© Eden Harris. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from Eden Harris is strictly prohibited. Excerpts, images, and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Eden Harris with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. You can contact Eden at edenh@alumni.upenn.edu.

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