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Most people who don’t smoke have a visceral reaction to the smell. I was in Maysville last fall and went into a restaurant where people were smoking. I turned around and walked out. The idea of riding in a car with a person who smokes creates the same reaction.

A new map compares the amount of air pollution in a community to spending time in a car with a smoker. Share My Air by Vivergy lets you check out air quality around the country. The worse the air is, the more time you’re spending in the enclosed, smoke-filled space.

Air quality in Omak, WA, on August 27, 2015. (Courtesy Share My Air)
Air quality in Omak, WA, on August 27, 2015. (Courtesy Share My Air)

The worst place in the country right now is the Pacific Northwest. Forest fires are filling the air with particulate matter. In rural cities in Idaho and Washington, the level of pollution is equivalent to living with a smoker for 11 months, or spending more than 12 hours in a car with a smoker.

The pollution data comes from the EPA’s AirNow website. This site reports air pollution data from around the United States and Canada on an hourly basis.

Scientists use particulate matter (PM 2.5) to measure exposure to cigarette smoke. PM 2.5 is also one of the air pollutants that the EPA and other government agencies track.

(Courtesy Share My Air)
(Courtesy Share My Air)

When the air looks hazy, that means there is a lot of PM 2.5 in the air. This matter is tiny, two-and-a-half microns or less in width. You can fit about 25,000 microns in an inch.

The tiny size of these droplets of pollution is what makes them dangerous to human health. These tiny particles can travel deep into human lungs. Breathing in these particles can cause coughing, sneezing, and a runny nose. For people who have breathing problems, such as asthma or COPD, or heart disease, high PM 2.5 levels can make breathing very difficult and even result in a trip to the emergency room.

Air quality in Louisville, KY, on August 27, 2015. (Courtesy Share My Air)
Air quality in Louisville, KY, on August 27, 2015. (Courtesy Share My Air)

If you live in a community (like Louisville) that has high levels of PM 2.5 year round, regular exposure can increase your chances of getting lung cancer and heart disease.

Comparing levels of air pollution with smoking is particularly relevant to Louisville. Many more people smoke here than in the rest of the country. About 18 percent of adults in America smoke, compared to 26.5 percent in Kentucky.

Many people quit smoking to protect their health. That is something individuals can control. How do you control the air outside your front door? The high levels of particulate matter in the air in Jefferson County puts everyone’s health at risk, whether you smoke or not.

[Editor’s Note: This article was cross-posted from the blog of the Institute for Healthy Air, Water & Soil. It appears here with permission.]
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Veronica Combs

Veronica Combs

Director of Community Engagement at Institute for Healthy Air, Water & Soil
Veronica Combs will be leading the AIR Louisville program for the Institute. Veronica is a writer, editor and content strategist who specializes in building online communities. Most recently she was the editor of MedCity News, a daily online news publication focused on the business of healthcare.
Veronica Combs

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