Health & Medicine

Air quality changes by the minute: Here’s what you should know, what sites to check

How will Sacramento’s air quality affect you if you exercise outdoors?

Julie Mallory, a runner, explains on Tuesday, August 7, 2018, how the air quality in Sacramento affected her running schedule at Capitol Park.
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Julie Mallory, a runner, explains on Tuesday, August 7, 2018, how the air quality in Sacramento affected her running schedule at Capitol Park.

The hazy, polluted conditions around the capital region are not expected to improve before the workweek’s end, and local experts and health officials all have the same message for residents: Check conditions before going outside.

Air quality levels are expected to reach 150 on Wednesday, which is determined to be unhealthy for vulnerable groups, according Sacramento Region Spare The Air, a website operated by a consortium of regional air quality districts. An AQI reading of 151, which was reported for Tuesday, is the minimum threshold for a determination of unhealthy for everyone.

The streak of “Spare the Air” days will stretch to its 14th day Wednesday, and possibly Thursday. Conditions will likely be the same as Tuesday, with generally “good” conditions in the morning but with air quality deemed unhealthy for vulnerable groups in the afternoon.

Smoky and polluted air is harmful to human health due to its high concentration of microscopic air particles that can irritate the eyes, nose and lungs and pose more serious long-term health effects.

Local officials have said the thickest smoke in the region is not at the surface level. Southwest winds from the Delta and from the Bay Area have pushed surface smoke to the east of the region, said Craig Shoemaker, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Sacramento.

What’s left is elevated haze and smoke.

“It’s definitely possible to have a high haze without ground-level impacts — we’ve been seeing that quite a bit,” said Thomas Hall, a spokesman for the Sacramento Metropolitan Air Quality Management District. “But that suspended particulate pollution mixes down toward ground level when the temperature rises, creating potential health impacts.”


This live-updating map shows the combined readings for particulate matter and ozone.
AQI Animation -

That higher-level smoke also is a factor for poorer readings in the foothill communities east of Sacramento, officials said.

Local air and weather experts are tracking a general pattern of improved conditions in the evening and during nighttime and worsened conditions in the afternoon.

“We advise that residents try to handle any outdoor activities in the mornings,” Hall said. “And only when they can’t see or smell ground-level smoke and air quality readings in their communities — available on — show healthy air.”

Whether it’s jogging outside or taking a walk on a lunch break, Shoemaker said, residents should check local air quality reports beforehand.

“If it’s low enough in a short enough duration it’s probably (fine),” Shoemaker said. “But ... air quality can change every hour. It’s something you definitely want to check before you were to go out and walk. Or (if it’s) something more strenuous, you’d definitely want to check.”

For those looking for a good time to exercise, morning conditions have been better, Hall said, but wind direction and intensity could change that.

Shoemaker also said it might be a good idea to rethink prolonged exercise outdoors. Strenuous exercise causing heavy breathing means individuals bring harmful particles in the air into their lungs quickly.

According to Catherine Dunwoody, the chief of the monitoring and laboratory division at the California Air Resources Board, there’s a lag in the posting of data on particulate matter.

“We measure particulate matter on an hourly basis,” Dunwoody said. “We report the data and it becomes available 20 to 30 minutes after that hour is complete. It sometimes can seem like we haven’t caught up, and in fact there is this delay built in by the fact that we’re measuring hourly.”

Even accounting for the delay, it may seem to some that conditions outside are different or worse than the air quality determinations made by local air quality reports.

“Unfortunately, we don’t have rigorous monitoring sites on every corner,” Hall said. Unlike other pollutants like ozone, wildfire smoke is difficult to predict — especially with this many fires going. Therefore, the best monitor is truly your senses.”

Local UC Davis pulmonary physician Dr. Brooks Kuhn, an assistant professor of clinical medicine, tells his patients to check the EPA’s Air Now website at for local conditions.

“If Air Now says it’s okay to go outside but (you’re) coughing, obviously the most important thing is staying inside — air conditioned, if possible,” Kuhn said.

People with cardiovascular or respiratory conditions, asthma or trouble breathing will be most affected by poor air quality, said Shoemaker. Other at-risk populations include children, the elderly and pregnant women.

As a lung specialist who runs UC Davis’ chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) clinic, Kuhn says he and his colleagues “always see an uptick” in the amount of asthmatic and COPD patients having a harder time breathing during wildfire season.

“Anyone with a high-risk lung or pulmonary disease to start with — COPD, asthma, coronary disease, heart rhythm problems — any of those patients who notice increasing shortness of breath that’s not going away after a change in their environment, chest pain, tightness or palpitations that don’t go away after a brief period of time … should definitely seek medical care,” he said.

Sacramento residents may want to look into the effectiveness of their indoor air filters. The California Air Resources Board has resources on its website to answer frequently asked questions and make recommendations on effective cleaners.

Air and weather experts as well as health experts encourage residents to be mindful of their own health and well-being. Healthy individuals should also be mindful of vulnerable friends and family and especially young children.

“Young children still have developing lungs,” Kuhn explained. “Where there’s more consistent air pollution, there can be impairment of lung development.”

Kuhn, a parent himself, advises other parents to limit the time their children spend outside as much as possible. It might prove difficult to keep them entertained indoors, but it’s worth it, he said.

The air quality district’s advisory warning with Sacramento County’s public health officer remains in effect until Friday.

Side-by-side maps for Sacramento County and California show how particulate matter and ozone have affected air quality. Here are some tips to keep your body healthier while the air is poor.

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