Checking the weather forecast wherever you're going is a common part of vacation planning. But have you thought to check the air quality? Vacations often involve extra outdoor activities, and we know that bad air quality can cause health problems for even those with excellent health — not to mention people with chronic lung diseases like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or asthma. To protect your health, make checking the air quality at your destination part of your travel planning.
Summertime often brings a lot of ozone pollution. Often called "smog," ozone is harmful to breathe because it aggressively attacks lung tissue by reacting chemically with it. Ozone (O3) is a gas molecule composed of three oxygen atoms. Ozone exposure can cause immediate breathing problems like wheezing, coughing, asthma attacks and scores of other adverse health effects, even premature death.
This summer, we're seeing lots of wildfires and dust that give rise to high levels of particle pollution, sometimes called soot. Particle pollution is made up of tiny particles, many times smaller than the thickness of a human hair. Particle pollution can enter your lungs and even pass from there into your blood stream. Particle pollution can shorten life, and increase the risk of heart disease, lung cancer and asthma attacks and have other dangerous health effects. Particle pollution can be present year round at an elevated and dangerous level. It can also have short-term increases, or "spikes," often related to wildfires, drought, industrial activity or other sources of particles. These short-term spikes can be very hazardous to health.
So when you're planning your trip, you may want to target areas that have less of these pollutants. The American Lung Association has a tool that collects data on these levels and provides a "report card" on annual air quality. It's called our "State of the Air" report, and in it, you can see the air quality grade for counties and metropolitan areas across the country. It also provides a ranking of the cities with the cleanest and dirtiest air, looking at ozone, year-round particle pollution and short-term particle pollution (short-term meaning dangerous spikes in particle pollution).
However, it's important to remember that "State of the Air" looks at air quality from past years. To find the forecasts for air quality for a particular day including where you are going to travel, visit AirNow, a website that constantly updates forecasts for air quality.
Other things to consider include:
Traffic: One of the factors that increases ozone and particle pollution levels is heavy traffic. That's why many high-traffic cities like Los Angeles, Houston and Washington, D.C., have so many "ozone alert" days during the summer. Exercising on a busy highway? Try to find a place further away. Research shows that areas within one-third of a mile of a busy roadway have much greater air pollution levels than we previously thought.
Travel should be fun, and it should also be safe for your health. Take steps to protect your health — especially if you have asthma or another lung disease. With a little planning and the right information, air pollution doesn't need to stand between you and a great vacation.
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