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Air Quality Information for Health Professionals

Health professionals need to understand how air quality can affect the health of patients, students and clients. Whether you are a general practitioner, school nurse, health official, fitness trainer or sports coach, understanding air quality and its effects on the human body is important.

When asked if air quality should be a health concern, the answer is "yes." The quality of the air affects human health in a number of different ways. Breathing air containing high levels of particles or unhealthy chemicals can lead to respiratory discomfort, an increase in asthma episodes and causing or exacerbating heart and lung disease.

Air Pollution

Pollutants that cause poor air quality

Smoke stack
Smoke stacks and cars are major sources of pollutants.

Different air pollutants can affect human health, and not all pollutants have the same effect on everyone. It is important to remember that regardless of the time of year, air pollution can affect you. In the summer the focus is on ozone because ozone needs sunlight and warm temperatures to form. Particle pollution, on the other hand, can exist year-round in the air. Both of these pollutants can irritate your lungs, and particle pollution has been linked to cardiac disease.

While other pollutants such as asbestos are not found in the air around you, exposure could occur by walking past an old building being torn down, or during a home remodeling effort. Follow these links to learn more.

What can people do to reduce air pollution and its negative effects?

Lawn mower for sale
Even lawn mowers affect air quality.

There are many sources of air pollution. Most people think of factories, power plants and large industries as the main sources. What they would be surprised to learn is that they could be harming their lungs in their own backyards. The following are all sources of air pollution:

  • open burning of trash or yard materials;
  • gasoline engines (e.g., lawn mowers, snow blowers and leaf blowers);
  • charcoal grills;
  • vehicles;
  • old paint cans;
  • gasoline cans; and
  • household cleaners.

If your patients, clients or students are having trouble with poor air quality, encourage them to minimize their exposure to outdoor air during watches and advisories and to manage their risk of breathing in toxic air by reducing their use of equipment or products that cause air pollution and looking for less-polluting alternatives. Review the Air Repair brochure [PDF] and Do a Little Save a Lot for more information.

Who Is At Risk

Who Is At Risk From Poor Air Quality And How It Can Affect Health

People with asthma, lung ailments and heart disease can be affected by poor air quality. Their lungs and heart are more sensitive to pollution than healthy lungs and hearts. On days when pollutant levels are elevated, people with sensitive lungs and cardiac disease may experience overall respiratory discomfort, difficulty breathing and tightness in their chests. When pollution levels are high, people with otherwise healthy lungs and hearts may also experience the same symptoms.

Doctor with a little kid.
Children breathe more pollutants further into their lungs than adults.

Children, the elderly, those with respiratory ailments and cardiac disease, and those who work or do vigorous/prolonged exercise outdoors are all placed in the sensitive group for different reasons.

  • Children have developing lungs and breathe faster and deeper into their lungs than adults. Therefore, they breathe more pollutants further into their lungs than adults.
  • The elderly and those with respiratory ailments and cardiac disease have more sensitive lungs and hearts than healthy adults, placing them in the sensitive category as well.
  • Individuals who work outdoors or do heavy and/or extensive outdoor exercise are considered sensitive to air quality due to their prolonged time spent breathing in pollutants.

Get more information on the health effects of air pollution from the American Lung Association [exit DNR] and the Wisconsin Department of Health Services - Wisconsin Asthma Program [exit DNR].

Air Quality Index and Advisories

The Air Quality Index and How to Use it

Air quality index logo

The Air Quality Index (AQI) is a color-coded scale used to report the actual level of pollutants in the air. Just like a stoplight, the air quality index reads as follows: Green means good, yellow means proceed with caution and red means stop and take warning.

Learn more about the Air Quality Index from the American Lung Association [exit DNR], the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) [exit DNR] and the Wisconsin Department of Health Services [exit DNR].

School nurses may want to check the daily air quality forecast each day — during both warm and cold months. If the forecast calls for poor air quality, discuss with the physical education teachers and principal whether scheduled outdoor activities, such as class or recess, should be held indoors for the day. Checking the forecast will also help you prepare for any needs your asthmatic students may have.

Medical professionals and sports/fitness trainers may want to advise people with asthma and other sensitive individuals to refrain from excessive outdoor work or exercise on days when the forecast calls for poor air quality. Many weather report outlets provide the air quality forecast or you can sign up for our newsletter to be notified when there is a watch or advisory.

DNR Air Quality Advisories

The DNR issues an Air Quality Advisory (AQA) when air pollutant levels have reached or exceeded the orange color range and are expected to remain at that level for several hours.

Resources and News


Single copies of the following publications and quantities for patient handouts may be ordered.

To order any of these publications, contact:

Lindsay Haas, 262-574-2113

Additional Resources

  • Be the first to know what the air quality forecast is by logging on to DNR's air quality mapping pages.
  • Stay informed by reading and subscribing to Air News, the DNR Air Program's e-newsletter.

In the News