Weather and Health: Air Quality

The air we breathe is not always good for us. It often contains pollution, which can cause or aggravate a number of health issues including respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.

Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA is responsible for monitoring air pollution across the United States. Calculated on the Air Quality Index (AQI), a standardized indicator, the agency’s daily reports focus on the health effects people may suffer as a result of breathing polluted air. The scale runs from 0-500 with increasing AQI values correlating to higher levels of pollution and an escalating risk to public health. Values above 100 are considered unhealthy.

Unlike some other environmental challenges, air pollution is nearly impossible to avoid, as we all need to breathe. Caused mainly by vehicle exhaust, power generation, and industrial emissions, its sources are ubiquitous. The five major air pollutants measured on the AQI are, ground level ozone, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide.

Pollutants often build to unsafe concentrations on days with very high temperatures and/or a lack of wind.  Ground level ozone, for example, forms when nitrogen oxides react with heat and U.V. light near the surface. Air quality alerts, therefore, are often issued in conjunction with heat advisories.

Weather Lingo: Humidity

“It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity.” This old adage heard throughout much of the summer in the eastern US, refers to how the amount of water vapor in the air affects human comfort. Since the body’s main source of cooling is evaporation of perspiration, the more moisture there is in the air, the less evaporation takes place and the warmer we feel. Two ways to indicate atmospheric moisture content are relative humidity and the dew point temperature.

Relative humidity (RH) measures the actual amount of moisture in the air compared to the total amount of moisture that the air can hold. It is expressed as a percentage and is commonly used in generic weather reports and apps. A high RH can produce fog and a low RH can cause rapid dehydration in both people and plants – important information for some sectors such farmers and crews fighting wildfires. But, since warm air can hold more moisture than cool air, the relative humidity changes as the air temperature changes.

The dew point temperature, on the other hand, is an absolute measurement and is often the preferred metric of meteorologists. It is the temperature to which air must be cooled in order to reach saturation. In other words, when the air temperature and the dew point temperature are same, the air is saturated and the relative humidity is 100%. If the air were to cool further, the water vapor would condense into liquid water, such as dew or precipitation.

The classic example of this phenomenon is a glass of cold liquid sitting on a table outside on a warm, muggy day. The beverage cools the air around it and beads of water form on the outside of the glass. The temperature at which the beads of water form is the dew point.

Simply put, the closer the dew point temperature is to the air temperature, the more humid it feels. In summer, when the air is warm and can hold a lot of moisture, a dew point temperature in the 50s is generally considered comfortable. Dew points in the 60s are thought of as muggy and once they reach the 70s or higher, the air can feel oppressive. On the opposite end of the spectrum, dew points in the 40s or lower are considered dry, and dry air has its own set of comfort issues

What is a Rip Current and Why is it Dangerous?

Summer vacation season is in full swing across the US. As millions of people head to beaches to have fun and beat the heat, it is important to remember that the ocean is a dynamic environment that can pose a number of hazards for swimmers. Chief among these are rip currents.

Rip currents are fast, localized channels of water moving away from the shoreline. According to NOAA, they are a result of “complex interactions between waves, currents, water levels and nearshore bathymetry.” They can form in several different ways on any beach with breaking waves. That said, they are typically found at breaks in sandbars and along permanent structures that extend out into the water such as jetties or piers.

Moving at speeds up to 8 feet per second – which is faster than an Olympic swimmer – rip currents can easily drag unsuspecting swimmers hundreds of yards out to sea.  While they will not pull anyone underwater, they can cause fatigue and panic. According to the U.S. Lifesaving Association, rip currents are responsible for 80% of all surf zone rescues. Nationally, they cause more than one hundred deaths every year.

To spot a rip current, look for a gap in the breaking waves.  This is where the water is forcing its way back out to sea. The area also usually appears murky and darker than the surrounding water.  On guarded beaches, red flags indicate hazardous conditions for swimmers.

If caught in a rip current, the Red Cross recommends not trying to swim against it.  Instead, they say to swim parallel to the shoreline until you are out of the current. Once free, you can start swimming back toward the beach.

For more information on beach safety, visit: http://www.redcross.org/prepare/disaster/water-safety/beach-safety

Credit: NOAA

Weather Lingo: Heat Index

Temperature is one of the basic elements of weather.  Our perception of it, however, is often influenced by other factors.  In summer, this is usually humidity.

The heat index, developed in the late 1970’s, is a measure of the apparent or “real feel” temperature when heat and humidity are combined.  Since the human body relies on the evaporation of perspiration to cool itself, the moisture content of the air affects comfort levels. Basically, as humidity levels increase, the rate of evaporation decreases and the body can begin to feel overheated.  For example, an air temperature of 92°F combined with a relative humidity level of 60% will produce a heat index value of 105°F.

The National Weather Service issues heat advisories when the heat index is forecast to be at least 95°F for two consecutive days or 100°F for any length of time.  Extended exposure to high heat index values can lead to serious health hazards.

Heat-Index

Credit: NOAA

Volcanic Smog: Kilauea’s Other Threat

Lava is not the only thing flowing out of the fissures of Kilauea on Hawaii. Sulfur dioxide, a foul-smelling and toxic gas, has also driven people from their homes.

According to the USGS, sulfur dioxide levels near the volcano have been measured above 100 parts per million. That is a level considered dangerous to human health. Noxious on its own, sulfur dioxide is also the main ingredient in volcanic smog. Known as vog in Hawaii, it can have a variety of adverse health effects.

Vog occurs when the sulfur dioxide spewing from a volcano reacts with oxygen, moisture, and other particles in the air in the presence of sunlight. It is considered a form of air pollution, not unlike that given off by power plants burning sulfurous coal. Looking back to December 1948, a similar type of toxic smog caused by unregulated industrial pollution killed 26 people and sickened thousands of others in Donora, PA.

Volcanic smog can irritate the skin, eyes, nose, throat, and lungs. Shortness of breath and dizziness can also occur.  Its effects can be even worse for anyone with respiratory problems or lung disease.

This threat, on top of the flowing lava, has led public health officials to order an evacuation of areas around the fissures, such as the hard hit Leilani Estates.  Other parts of the Big Island, however, have reported moderate to good air quality. This is largely because the region’s prevailing northeast trade winds have been pushing the vog offshore. If those winds slacken and a southeasterly flow emerges, the vog could impact a wider area, including other islands in the Hawaiian chain.

Volcanic eruptions spew gas as well as lava. Credit: GoVisitHawaii

Dressing for Cold Weather

When winter rolls around, I am often reminded of the old Scandinavian saying: “There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing choices.”

Since the weather is going to do whatever it is going to do, it is important to be prepared for anything that Mother Nature throws your way. In winter, that means cold temperatures.

Extreme cold causes the body to lose heat faster than it can be generated. Prolonged exposure, according to the CDC, can cause serious health problems such as hypothermia and frostbite.

To stay safe this winter, remember to bundle up in layers and wear hats and gloves to minimize the loss of body heat.

Credit: NOAA

Wearable Artwork Raises Awareness about Air Quality

The air we breathe is not always good for us. Air pollution has been linked to a number of health concerns, from asthma to heart disease, and even cancer. To raise awareness about this issue, artist Dominque Paul has created a dress that changes colors to indicate how safe the air we breathe actually is. It’s called Air Quality Interactive Wearable.

With the exception of smog and wildfire smoke, air pollution is not something we can always see with the naked eye. To make it visible, Ms. Paul uses an Air Beam, a portable device that measures the amount of small particles (PM 2.5) in the air. These are particles that are less than 2.5 microns or 0.0001 inches in diameter. Using the Air Beam’s calculation, a color from the EPA’s Air Quality Index is assigned to the dress. These colors range from green for good air quality to yellow, orange, red, and purple, which indicate increasing levels of pollution.

Ms. Paul created this wearable art piece as part of a residency program with IDEAS xLab, a non-profit organization that uses art to raise awareness about public health. Watch the video below of her “Air Walk” in the South Bronx section of New York City.

Weather and Safety: Kids in Hot Cars

Summer has only just begun and it seems like every few days there is a report of a child dying from heatstroke in a hot car. These types of tragedies, however, are preventable.

Since 1998, according to kidsandcars.org, there has been an average of 37 hot car deaths in the US every year. That is one every nine days. This year, there have already been 15 deaths reported.

Credit: USA Today

On a sunny day, the interior temperature of a parked car can increase 19°F in just ten minutes. That means if the outside air temperature is a seemingly comfortable 70°F, the inside of the car can heat up to near 90°F in a very short span of time. The situation is even worse when the outside temperature is higher and the car sits in the sun longer.

According to the Mayo Clinic, if the human body reaches 104°F, organ damage and death become a real risk. Children are even more vulnerable because their smaller bodies can heat up between three to five times faster than an adult. Most hot car victims are under the age of three.

These dangerous situations develop in a number of different ways. Children can sometimes find their own way into a car while playing outside or a guardian leaves them alone in a vehicle for what seems like a quick errand. However, the majority of hot car deaths occur when a parent or caregiver gets distracted and simply forgets that a child is still in the back seat when they park their car.

To avoid a heartbreaking tragedy, remember to Look Before You Lock!

Credit: KidsandCars.org

Extreme Heat Can Impact Your Health

The second heat wave of the year is underway in the Big Apple. As temperatures soar, it is important to remember that intense heat can cause serious health problems.

According to the CDC, extreme heat – temperatures that are significantly hotter than the average local summertime high – is one of the leading causes of weather-related deaths in this country. Claiming hundreds of lives every year, excessive heat kills more people across the U.S. than hurricanes and tornadoes combined.

Extreme heat is deadly because it forces the human body beyond its capacity to cool itself. Linked to overheating and dehydration, heat-related illnesses can range in severity from mild to life-threatening.  Symptoms for each stage include:

Heat Cramps:  Painful muscle spasms in the legs and/or abdomen

Heat Exhaustion:  fatigue, weakness, clammy skin, and nausea

Heat Stroke:  rapid pulse, hot and dry skin, no sweating. This is a medical emergency

To beat the heat, the American Red Cross suggests:

  • Avoid strenuous activity
  • Dress lightly
  • Eat lightly
  • Drink plenty of water
  • Replenish salts and minerals lost through perspiration
  • Limit caffeine and alcohol
  • Stay out of the sun
  • Cool off in an air-conditioned building, when possible

Weather and Health: Seasonal Affective Disorder

Autumn, with its crisp temperatures, is a favorite season for many. But for others, the decreasing daylight hours can bring on a condition known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

According to the Mayo Clinic, SAD is a “subtype of depression that comes and goes with the seasons” and is most common in fall and winter. Its exact cause is not fully understood, but researchers say a reduction of sunlight can disrupt the production of serotonin and melatonin – chemicals in the brain that regulate mood and sleep patterns. SAD symptoms include low spirits, lack of energy, difficulty concentrating, and changes in both sleep and eating patterns.

SAD is typically found in places that are far from the equator where daylight is at a minimum in the winter months. A report by the American Academy of Family Physicians says about 6% of the US population suffers from some degree of SAD, with most cases occurring in Alaska.

The most common treatment for SAD is light therapy. This involves sitting in front of a special lamp that gives off light that is similar to natural sunshine. It has been shown to trigger the brain chemicals that regulate mood. The more serious cases of SAD could require advanced talk-therapy or even medication.

While everyone can feel a little “blue” once in awhile, SAD is characterized by a prolonged feeling of depression. It can be a serious condition and should be diagnosed by a medical professional.

SAD. Credit: hercampus

The most common type of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) occurs in fall and winter. Credit: hercampus