Nature and Biodiversity

What's my local air quality index – and why is it important?

The Air Quality Index provides information on local air quality levels and offers practical advice on what to do when levels are high.

The Air Quality Index provides information on local air quality levels and offers practical advice on what to do when levels are high. Image: Unsplash/shaikhulud

Charlotte Edmond
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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  • Wildfires in Canada have led to several health authorities releasing warnings about air quality.
  • Wildfires are also on the rise as a result of the climate crisis and land use changes.
  • The Air Quality Index provides information on local air quality levels and offers practical advice on what to do when levels are high.

An early and intense start to the wildfire season in Canada has led to public health authorities in New York, Toronto and Ottawa all issuing warnings about air quality.

Air pollution in New York hit the worst level in recent history on 8 June after intense wildfires in Canada sent up huge amounts of smoke into the atmosphere.

Continued wildfires are predicted in the region amid long-term forecasts of warm and dry weather. On a longer-term basis, as the climate crisis drives up temperatures and increases droughts, wildfires are becoming more likely. This means smoke and its impact on air quality will remain a persistent and growing concern around the world.

Air quality in the world’s most polluted cities exceeds WHO guidelines by over 10 times.
Air quality in the world’s most polluted cities exceeds WHO guidelines by over 10 times. Image: IQ Air

What is the impact of air pollution?

Wildfires release fine particulate matter which spreads over hundreds of kilometres. These tiny particles can aggravate asthma, cause lung diseases and heart attacks, and lead to premature death.

Globally, air pollution is responsible for about 7 million deaths a year – or about 10% of all deaths.

The combined influence of climate change and land use change is predicted to lead to a 14% increase in extreme fires by 2030, rising to 30% by 2050 and 50% by 2100, according to a report by the UN Environment Programme.

As the World Economic Forum’s Global Health and Healthcare Strategic Outlook highlights, air-pollution-related deaths will not be the only health implication of climate change, with illnesses such as malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea and heat stress all set to increase. The cost of direct damage to health is estimated to be around $2-4 billion annually by 2030.

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Infographic showing the global change in wildfire events.
Even under the lowest emissions scenarios we are set to see a significant increase in wildfires. Image: UNEP

Avoiding exposure to poor-quality air

On an individual level, there are a number of steps that can be taken when air pollution levels are exceptionally high. These include not making unnecessary car journeys, and avoiding using wood stoves or burning things like trash or garden waste. Other steps sometimes advised include staying inside, avoiding prolonged or heavy exertion, and keeping medication to hand if you have asthma or a heart condition.

A gif showing how air pollution kills 13 people every minute.
Globally, air pollution is responsible for about 10% of all deaths. Image: WHO

Understanding air quality near you

The Air Quality Index allows you to see how polluted the air near you is on a daily basis, including what the health effects could be. It grades pollution levels and gives advice on the appropriate action to take.

Many people are particularly at risk from poor air quality, including those with pre-existing heart or lung conditions, children, and older adults. However, even if you are otherwise healthy and don’t fall into any of these categories you should still adjust your activities when pollution levels are high.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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Nature and BiodiversityHealth and Healthcare Systems
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