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Zoe P., VA

Air quality matters to all of us. For our sophomore year science fair project at Westfield High School in Chantilly, Virginia, my classmate Blake and I evaluated the indoor air quality at our school and our competition cheerleading gym. What we learned about air quality, especially about outdoor air quality, really surprised us.

Pollutants in the air, mostly particulate matter, can travel quite far, much farther than most people realize. Over time, Blake and I learned it can have a major effect on your health, especially if you have asthma, respiratory conditions or a heart condition.

Students with asthma who have to be outside for P.E. class on a bad air day may struggle to breathe and definitely can't perform athletically as well as students who don't have breathing issues.

We wanted to bring this awareness to the other teens at our school and to help spread the message to parents and teachers. We felt it was not only important to help people make the connection between air quality and health but to also let anyone with a pre-existing medical problem know whether they might need to take extra precautions on a bad quality air day.

Our principal and the head of the science department thought it was a great idea and gave us permission to launch the project school wide. Using the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Air Quality Index as our guide, the first step was to order flags – green for good air quality; yellow for moderate; orange for unhealthy air that could affect sensitive groups; red for poor air quality that affects everyone; and maroon for hazardous air quality that could represent a serious public health problem.

Each morning, we confirm the air quality forecast for our zip code by checking an app on our phones that we've downloaded from the EPA. So far, the air quality in our community has been good so we've only had to fly a green or yellow flag. But if the status changed to orange or red, anyone walking by would quickly know whether they might want to take action, like taking it easy exercising outside during P.E. or not going outside at all if the air quality is really bad.

The project has been a great success, and we've had great feedback from our fellow students and teachers. One student told us that the information was completely new to him. He hadn't appreciated the importance of air quality to health, and he wondered where the air data was collected. That gave us an opportunity to explore the topic of air quality and the EPA even more.

In the near future, Blake and I hope to expand the project to our local elementary and middle schools. It's such a simple project, but so rewarding, and it can have such a big impact on people's lives. We encourage every school around the country to consider implementing a similar air quality warning system. For more information, on the EPA Air Quality Flag Program go to

First Published: April 19, 2017

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