An air quality index (AQI) is a number used by government agencies to communicate to the public how polluted the air currently is or how polluted it is forecast to become. As the AQI increases, an increasingly large percentage of the population is likely to experience increasingly severe adverse health effects. Different countries have their own air quality indices, corresponding to different national air quality standards. Some of these are the Air Quality Health Index (Canada), the Air Pollution Index (Malaysia), and the Pollutant Standards Index (Singapore). Definition and usage
An air quality measurement station in Edinburgh, Scotland
Computation of the AQI requires an air pollutant concentration over a specified averaging period, obtained from an air monitor or model. Taken together, concentration and time represent the dose of the air pollutant. Health effects corresponding to a given dose are established by epidemiological research. Air pollutants vary in potency, and the function used to convert from air pollutant concentration to AQI varies by pollutant. Its air quality index values are typically grouped into ranges. Each range is assigned a descriptor, a color code, and a standardized public health advisory.
The AQI can increase due to an increase of air emissions (for example, during rush hour traffic or when there is an upwind forest fire) or from a lack of dilution of air pollutants. Stagnant air, often caused by an anticyclone, temperature inversion, or low wind speeds lets air pollution remain in a local area, leading to high concentrations of pollutants, chemical reactions between air contaminants and hazy conditions.
Signboard in Gulfton, Houston indicating an ozone watch
On a day when the AQI is predicted to be elevated due to fine particle pollution, an agency or public health organization might:
advise sensitive groups, such as the elderly, children, and those with respiratory or cardiovascular problems to avoid outdoor exertion.
declare an “action day” to encourage voluntary measures to reduce air emissions, such as using public transportation.
recommend the use of masks to keep fine particles from entering the lungs
During a period of very poor air quality, such as an air pollution episode, when the AQI indicates that acute exposure may cause significant harm to the public health, agencies may invoke emergency plans that allow them to order major emitters (such as coal burning industries) to curtail emissions until the hazardous conditions abate.
Most air contaminants do not have an associated AQI. Many countries monitor ground-level ozone, particulates, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen dioxide, and calculate air quality indices for these pollutants.
The definition of the AQI in a particular nation reflects the discourse surrounding the development of national air quality standards in that nation. A website allowing government agencies anywhere in the world to submit their real-time air monitoring data for display using a common definition of the air quality index has recently become available.
Indices by location
Main article: Air Quality Health Index (Canada)
Air quality in Canada has been reported for many years with provincial Air Quality Indices (AQIs). Significantly, AQI values reflect air quality management objectives, which are based on the lowest achievable emissions rate, and not exclusively concern for human health. The Air Quality Health Index or (AQHI) is a scale designed to help understand the impact of air quality on health. It is a health protection tool used to make decisions to reduce short-term exposure to air pollution by adjusting activity levels during increased levels of air pollution. The Air Quality Health Index also provides advice on how to improve air quality by proposing behavioral change to reduce the environmental footprint. This index pays particular attention to people who are sensitive to air pollution. It provides them with advice on how to protect their health during air quality levels associated with low, moderate, high and very high health risks.
The Air Quality Health Index provides a number from 1 to 10+ to indicate the level of health risk associated with local air quality. On occasion, when the amount of air pollution is abnormally high, the number may exceed 10. The AQHI provides a local air quality current value as well as a local air quality maximums forecast for today, tonight, and tomorrow, and provides associated health advice.
|Risk:||Low (1–3)||Moderate (4–6)||High (7–10)||Very high (above 10)|
|Health Risk||Air Quality Health Index||Health Messages|
|At Risk population||*General Population|
|Low||1–3||Enjoy your usual outdoor activities.||Ideal air quality for outdoor activities|
|Moderate||4–6||Consider reducing or rescheduling strenuous activities outdoors if you are experiencing symptoms.||No need to modify your usual outdoor activities unless you experience symptoms such as coughing and throat irritation.|
|High||7–10||Reduce or reschedule strenuous activities outdoors. Children and the elderly should also take it easy.||Consider reducing or rescheduling strenuous activities outdoors if you experience symptoms such as coughing and throat irritation.|
|Very high||Above 10||Avoid strenuous activities outdoors. Children and the elderly should also avoid outdoor physical exertion.||Reduce or reschedule strenuous activities outdoors, especially if you experience symptoms such as coughing and throat irritation.|
The AQI is based on the five “criteria” pollutants regulated under the Clean Air Act: ground-level ozone, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide. The EPA has established National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for each of these pollutants in order to protect public health. An AQI value of 100 generally corresponds to the level of the NAAQS for the pollutant. The Clean Air Act (USA) (1990) requires EPA to review its National Ambient Air Quality Standards every five years to reflect evolving health effects information. The Air Quality Index is adjusted periodically to reflect these changes.
Computing the AQI
The air quality index is a piecewise linear function of the pollutant concentration. At the boundary between AQI categories, there is a discontinuous jump of one AQI unit. To convert from concentration to AQI this equation is used:
If multiple pollutants are measured at a monitoring site, then the largest or “dominant” AQI value is reported for the location. The ozone AQI between 100 and 300 is computed by selecting the larger of the AQI calculated with a 1-hour ozone value and the AQI computed with the 8-hour ozone value.
8-hour ozone averages do not define AQI values greater than 300; AQI values of 301 or greater are calculated with 1-hour ozone concentrations. 1-hour SO2 values do not define higher AQI values greater than 200. AQI values of 201 or greater are calculated with 24-hour SO2 concentrations.
Real time monitoring data from continuous monitors are typically available as 1-hour averages. However, computation of the AQI for some pollutants requires averaging over multiple hours of data. (For example, calculation of the ozone AQI requires computation of an 8-hour average and computation of the PM2.5 or PM10 AQI requires a 24-hour average.) To accurately reflect the current air quality, the multi-hour average used for the AQI computation should be centered on the current time, but as concentrations of future hours are unknown and are difficult to estimate accurately, EPA uses surrogate concentrations to estimate these multi-hour averages. For reporting the PM2.5, PM10 and ozone air quality indices, this surrogate concentration is called the NowCast. The Nowcast is a particular type of weighted average that provides more weight to the most recent air quality data when air pollution levels are changing. There is a free email subscription service for New York inhabitants – AirNYC. Subscribers get notification about AQI values changes for selected location (eg home address), based on air quality conditions.
Public Availability of the AQI
Real time monitoring data and forecasts of air quality that are color-coded in terms of the air quality index are available from EPA’s AirNow web site. Historical air monitoring data including AQI charts and maps are available at EPA’s AirData website. Detailed map about current AQI level and its two day forecast is available from Aerostate web site.
History of the AQI
The AQI made its debut in 1968, when the National Air Pollution Control Administration undertook an initiative to develop an air quality index and to apply the methodology to Metropolitan Statistical Areas. The impetus was to draw public attention to the issue of air pollution and indirectly push responsible local public officials to take action to control sources of pollution and enhance air quality within their jurisdictions.
Jack Fensterstock, the head of the National Inventory of Air Pollution Emissions and Control Branch, was tasked to lead the development of the methodology and to compile the air quality and emissions data necessary to test and calibrate resultant indices.
The initial iteration of the air quality index used standardized ambient pollutant concentrations to yield individual pollutant indices. These indices were then weighted and summed to form a single total air quality index. The overall methodology could use concentrations that are taken from ambient monitoring data or are predicted by means of a diffusion model. The concentrations were then converted into a standard statistical distribution with a preset mean and standard deviation. The resultant individual pollutant indices are assumed to be equally weighted, although values other than unity can be used. Likewise, the index can incorporate any number of pollutants although it was only used to combine SOx, CO, and TSP because of a lack of available data for other pollutants.
While the methodology was designed to be robust, the practical application for all metropolitan areas proved to be inconsistent due to the paucity of ambient air quality monitoring data, lack of agreement on weighting factors, and non-uniformity of air quality standards across geographical and political boundaries. Despite these issues, the publication of lists ranking metropolitan areas achieved the public policy objectives and led to the future development of improved indices and their routine application.