Air quality is a measure of pollution in the surrounding air over a period of time. There are many different sources of air pollutants, and various weather factors, that can affect air quality on a daily basis. Some examples of pollution sources include emissions from energy production, vehicle exhaust, solvent fumes, methane from waste, smoke, and organic matter (e.g. pollen). The quality of the air, both indoors and out, can have a significant impact on the health of the UMBC community and that of the surrounding natural environment.
Air pollution hangs over downtown Baltimore in this photo from MDE in early January 2016. A winter weather condition, known as an inversion, can trap pollution from cars, industrial activity, and other combustion sources close to the ground. The markings on the image show how the pollution lifted during the day as the air warmed up.
Air Quality Index
Think of the Air Quality Index (AQI) as a yardstick that runs from 0 to 500. The higher the AQI value, the greater the level of air pollution and the greater the health concern. For example, an AQI value of 50 or below represents good air quality, while an AQI value over 300 represents hazardous air quality.
For each pollutant, an AQI value of 100 generally corresponds to an ambient air concentration that equals the level of the short-term national ambient air quality standard for the protection of public health. AQI values at or below 100 are generally thought of as satisfactory. When AQI values are above 100, air quality is unhealthy: at first for certain sensitive groups of people, then for everyone as AQI values get higher.
The AQI is divided into six categories. Each category corresponds to a different level of health concern. Each category also has a specific color. The color makes it easy for people to quickly determine whether air quality is reaching unhealthy levels in their communities.
Baltimore’s Air Quality
People across America regularly breathe unhealthy air that increases their risk of premature death, asthma attacks, and other adverse health impacts. The 2018 Environment Maryland Research & Policy Center and Maryland PIRG Foundation’s report, Trouble in the Air Millions of Americans Breathe Polluted Air, identified Baltimore as one of the ten most populated metro areas in the US with more than 100 days of elevated air pollution in 2016.
In 2016, 73 million Americans experienced more than 100 days of degraded air quality with the potential to harm human health. That is equal to more than three months of the year in which smog and/or particulate pollution was above the level that the EPA has determined presents “little to no risk.” Millions of more people in urban and rural areas experienced less frequent but still damaging levels of air pollution.
UMBC’s Role in Air Quality
At UMBC, scientists, transportation experts, urban planners, and engineers are working on ways to monitor and reduce air pollution both locally and globally. The UMBC Office of Sustainability supports these efforts by providing data on our emissions through the annual greenhouse gas inventory and by hosting a real-time air quality sensor on campus. UMBC is always exploring new strategies, as outlined in the Climate Action Plan, to reduce the university’s emissions and to adapt the campus to the air quality of the greater Baltimore area.
Some strategies include:
- Adapting campus infrastructure to withstand the challenges presented by climate change
- Designing all-new indoor environments to meet LEED standards for indoor air quality
- Monitoring UMBC’s air quality in real-time
- Promoting sustainable transportation such as public transit, biking, carpooling, and walking