Air quality is something we don’t hear about very often, but air is obviously all around us and we are breathing it in every second.
In this guide, we discuss what level of air quality/pollution might be safe for us to breathe in and live in everyday.
Summary – Safe Levels Of Air Quality & Pollution, & Air Quality Measuring & Tracking
Air quality can tell us how much pollutants are in the air, and what level of risk/harm there is in breathing air in a particular geographic area in
Different States or provinces in different countries are going to have different indexes that monitor and report of air quality, and give some indication of how safe or hazardous conditions are at different levels of air quality
Different countries and States/provinces might measure different major air pollutants when formulating indexes
In the US for example, ozone, particulate matter, carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide are some of the major pollutants measured
Certain groups of people, like children, people with respiratory conditions, very active outdoors people, and some elderly people might be more at risk of poor air quality
WHO provides 24 hour and annual values for each of the main air pollutants that might be considered safer or healthier to be exposed to to minimize risk of disease and health issues. Those pollutants are both fine and coarse particulate matter, ozone, nitrogen dioxide, and sulfur dioxide
Certain factors can impact air quality measurements on any given day and hour – such as weather, wind, temperature and sunlight, rainfall, and wildfires
Air pollution in developed countries can largely be due to traffic/vehicles, and smog from power plants and industry
Individuals can keep track of or sign up to alerts for local air quality indexes for reminders on current air quality levels
What Is Air Quality?
Air quality is a measure of the ambient air around us, that indicates how much or how little pollutants are in the air, and what level of risk/harm that air (and any pollutants) present to us by breathing it in.
How Do We Measure Air Quality? – Air Quality Index
- [In the] U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) created the Air Quality Index (AQI) to monitor and report on air quality each day and let people know about its possible health impacts.
The major pollutants that are measured in the air in the US are ozone, particulate matter (PM2.5 and PM10), carbon monoxide, and sulfur dioxide.
Other countries may use other air quality/air pollutant indexes to measure air quality, such as the Air Quality Health Index (Canada), the Air Pollution Index (Malaysia), and the Pollutant Standards Index (Singapore) + others. Some of these other countries measure nitrogen dioxide as well.
United States Index
The US AQI lists the following indicators (along with color coding for each):
Air Quality Index Value/Range, & Air Quality:
- 0-50 – air quality conditions are good
- 51-100 – air quality conditions are moderate
- 101-150 – air quality conditions are unhealthy for sensitive groups
- 151-200 – air quality conditions are unhealthy for everyone
- 201-300 – air quality conditions are very unhealthy for everyone
- 301-500 – air quality conditions are hazardous for everyone
- 0-50 – Air quality is considered satisfactory, and air pollution poses little or no risk.
- 51-100 – Air quality is acceptable; however, for some pollutants there may be a moderate health concern for a very small number of people. For example, people who are unusually sensitive to ozone may experience respiratory symptoms.
- 101-150 – Although general public is not likely to be affected at this AQI range, people with lung disease, older adults and children are at a greater risk from exposure to ozone, whereas persons with heart and lung disease, older adults and children are at greater risk from the presence of particles in the air.
- 151-200 – Everyone may begin to experience some adverse health effects, and members of the sensitive groups may experience more serious effects.
- 201-300 – This would trigger a health alert signifying that everyone may experience more serious health effects.
- 301-500 – This would trigger a health warnings of emergency conditions. The entire population is more likely to be affected.
You can find local air quality at https://airnow.gov/index.cfm?action=aqibasics.aqi. Enter your state and zip code, and press the ‘Go’ button.
Australia Index (NSW)
The NSW AQI lists the following indicators (along with color coding for each):
Air Quality Index Value/Range, & Air Quality Conditions:
- 0-33 – very good air quality conditions
- 34-66 – good air quality conditions
- 67-99 – fair air quality conditions
- 100-149 – poor air quality conditions
- 150-200 – very poor air quality conditions
- 200+ – hazardous air quality conditions
Recommended Precaution Or Actions:
- 0-33 – enjoy activities
- 34-66 – enjoy activities
- 67-99 – People unusually sensitive to air pollution should plan strenuous outdoor activities when air quality is better
- 100-149 – AIR POLLUTION HEALTH ALERT. Sensitive Groups should cut back or reschedule strenuous outdoor activities
- 150-200 – AIR POLLUTION HEALTH ALERT. Sensitive groups should avoid strenuous outdoor activities. Everyone should cut back or reschedule strenuous outdoor activities.
- 200+ – AIR POLLUTION HEALTH ALERT. Sensitive groups should avoid all outdoor physical activities. Everyone should significantly cut back on outdoor physical activities.
You can find local air quality by clicking the links for the different regions in NSW at the bottom of the site at https://www.environment.nsw.gov.au/regions/metropolitan-sydney. The air quality values are displayed on each region’s page.
The World AQI lists the following indicators (along with color coding for each):
Air Quality Index Value/Range, & Air Quality Conditions:
- 0-50 – good air quality conditions
- 51-100 – moderate air quality conditions
- 101-150 – unhealthy air quality conditions for sensitive groups
- 151-200 – unhealthy air quality conditions for everyone
- 201-300 – very unhealthy air quality conditions for everyone
- 300+ – hazardous air quality conditions for everyone
- 0-50 – poses little to no risk to health
- 51-100 – for some pollutants there may be a moderate health concern for a very small number of people who are unusually sensitive to air pollution
- 101-150 – Members of sensitive groups may experience health effects. The general public is not likely to be affected.
- 151-200 – Everyone may begin to experience health effects; members of sensitive groups may experience more serious health effects
- 201-300 – Health warnings of emergency conditions. The entire population is more likely to be affected.
- 300+ – HEALTH ALERT: everyone may experience more serious health effects
Cautionary Statement (for PM2.5)
- 0-50 – none
- 51-100 – active children and adults, and people with respiratory disease, such as asthma, should limit prolonged outdoor exertion
- 101-150 – active children and adults, and people with respiratory disease, such as asthma, should limit prolonged outdoor exertion
- 151-200 – active children and adults, and people with respiratory disease, such as asthma, should avoid prolonged outdoor exertion. Everyone else, especially children, should limit prolonged outdoor exertion
- 201-300 – active children and adults, and people with respiratory disease, such as asthma, should avoid prolonged outdoor exertion. Everyone else, especially children, should limit prolonged outdoor exertion
- 300+ – everyone should avoid all outdoor exertion
You can see the air quality index values on the real time map at https://waqi.info/
Air Quality Indexes Of Various Other Countries
View at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Air_quality_index
What Level Of Air Quality Is Safe For Us To Breathe In, & Live In?
It depends on the air quality index you are looking at, but obviously, the cleaner the air and the free-er from pollutants, the better for the health of everyone.
- For the US, somewhere between 0 to 100 is probably safest.
- In Australia, in NSW, somewhere between 0 to 66 is probably safest.
- For the world index, somewhere between 0 to 100 is probably safest.
What Are The Recommended/Guideline Air Quality Values For Each Type Of Air Pollutant?
The World Health Organisation provides guideline air quality values (concentration of each pollutant in the air) for each city or town to gradually move to from their current values/levels.
These values are considered more safer or healthier to minimise the risk of disease and health issues.
These values are:
Fine Particulate Matter (PM2.5)
- 10 μg/m3 annual mean
- 25 μg/m3 24-hour mean
Coarse Particulate Matter (PM10)
- 20 μg/m3 annual mean
- 50 μg/m3 24-hour mean
- 100 μg/m3 8-hour mean
Nitrogen dioxide (NO2)
- 40 μg/m3 annual mean
- 200 μg/m3 1-hour mean
Sulfur dioxide (SO2)
- 20 μg/m3 24-hour mean
- 500 μg/m3 10-minute mean
When checking how much of each air pollutant is in the air in your locality via an online air quality tracker, you can compare them against these values.
Factors That Can Impact Air Quality Measurements In The Short Term
- Weather in general
- Temperature and sunlight
- Wildfires (climate change is predicted to increase the risk of wildfires)
These factors can increase the concentration of different pollutants in the air in the short term.
Countries & Cities In The World With The Worst Air Quality & Air Pollution
Air Quality & Air Pollution In Developed Countries
- Most of the pollution [in developed countries] is due to traffic and smog from power plants and industry.
- Eighty-five percent of European urban dwellers are exposed to particulate matter at levels higher than what WHO considers safe.
What You Can Do As An Individual About Air Quality & Air Pollution
- Monitor air quality in your area through a world, or local air quality index
- Sign up for air quality alerts on that website
- Consider the impact that renewable/clean electricity, and alternative clean fuel vehicles can have on air pollution for developing and developed countries
Note: The Difference Between Outdoor Ambient Air Pollution & Household Air Pollution
Above, we are mainly talking about ambient air pollution. This is a separate issue from household air pollution which affects some of the world’s poorest people.
The World Health Organisation has some good data on ambient vs household air pollution, which you can view at:
- http://maps.who.int/airpollution/ (interactive map – 91% of the world’s population lives in places where air quality exceeds WHO guideline limits)
- https://www.who.int/gho/phe/indoor_air_pollution/burden/en/ (mortality from household air pollution – many people live in Africa and South East Asia)