May is National Clean Air Month! Technology has made living with pollution and helping mitigate it, easier than ever. Keeping safe is easier, too. 

The United States Air Quality Index (AQI) is a helpful tool for a variety of reasons, but its main goal is to help people make smarter, more informed decisions to protect their well-being when spending time outdoors.

People suffering from asthma, for example, are especially interested in how much pollution or even naturally occurring air contaminants like pollen are impacting air quality in real-time. Poor air quality can obviously make asthma symptoms worse, trigger asthma attacks, and increase the likelihood for otherwise healthy individuals in those lower air quality areas to potentially develop asthma.

It’s easy to point fingers at only a few major hot spots in the world who are clearly the worst offenders causing the most pollution, however, the truth of the matter is that the impacts are more widespread and affect virtually everyone. While places like Mexico City, Los Angeles, Beijing, and New Delhi are notorious for their air quality issues, studies have shown that air pollution can affect populations across entire countries not to mention entire continents.

The more we observe, the more we learn about and understand long-term effects of air pollution in people even far away from major cities. Rising rates of cardiovascular disease, respiratory issues, and even certain types of cancers are certainly of heightened concern.

Essentially, air quality is and should be important to everyone. Although we tend to focus on the effects of poor air quality only as it relates to our physical health. This is why we ask….

What does air quality have to do with mental health? A lot.

Newer studies are showing a deeper connection between air quality and human health.

Researchers at the University of Washington have observed a relationship between mental health problems and poor air quality, particularly due to what they dub “social determinants.” When air quality is poor, people are more likely to spend time indoors, which in turn leads to people being more sedentary.

Equally important as we become more and more mindful of air pollution includes watching out for children under the age of 18.

Researchers at Duke University concluded a multi-decade study that looked at children exposed to extreme air pollution and found that especially at an early age, these children were more likely to develop mental health issues, including depression. 

Researchers believed that this could be due to exposure to pollutants like nitrogen oxides and other common gases produced by automobiles, commonly found in more densely populated cities.

Humans were not meant to constantly sit indoors and veg (even though it sounds awesome now and again). We were meant to move our bodies, dance, run, play. 

Movement and sunlight are well-known natural ways to increase serotonin, a hormone essential to elated mood and happiness. Staying indoors with limited options over a long period of time will not allow the body to produce what is necessary to sustain positive mental health. That’s why researchers and physicians developed light therapy technology for widespread use in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s. And now, we just order one off Amazon.

It is also clear the effects of nature on our overall mental health and well-being. Even simple things like gardening or going for a walk can bring us closer to peace and centeredness. Yet, if we remain inside our dwellings with little to no connection with nature, we are depressing our own human nature as a result.

Starting from the beginning.

Being mindful is the first step in taking control of our mental health and being more aware of our environment. How can we protect both simultaneously?

  1. Check the air quality index. Most weather apps these days have some kind of pollution report or air quality index (here’s a curated list for you). These can make a huge difference in how well you enjoy nature, so waiting to go on a hike until the air quality index gives you a good reading might make you feel better overall. On these days, consider riding a bike instead of driving a car or turning off major electronics in your home. You’ll feel better and so will your environment. Of course, you can monitor the air quality inside your home too. We are fans of using data to make decisions rather than just guessing!
  1. Get out of the city. More and more people are moving to the ‘burbs these days, especially given the rise of remote working. Cities undoubtedly have a higher concentration of air pollution mostly due to the prevalence of cars. With some businesses considering remote working, finding work outside the city gives you more opportunity to enjoy some fresh air. It’s probably why Colorado has become such a popular relocation destination over the past few years. If you’re considering relocation be sure to check broadband availability or just wait a while longer and have high-speed internet basically anywhere in the US. Isn’t technology awesome?
  1. Be mindful of waste. It’s easy to go about our daily lives without a thought as to our own individual impacts on the environment. Albeit small, each person over a lifetime can potentially contribute tons and tons of waste without even realizing it. The good news is that small steps can make a huge difference in reducing pollution. Even better, doing good for Mother Earth can make us feel good and contribute to our own personal mental outlook. Whether you are choosing to take public transportation (made easier than ever thanks to myriad apps and services), going hyper-local to give and receive items you don’t need to buy new, shopping in bulk (here’s an example list for CA), or anything else, technology has made access to goods and services easier than ever.

Air pollution as it relates to global warming is obviously a hot-button topic, with growing concerns among most regarding climate change. Fortunately, we can make smart choices about when to go outside and when to take a break from their outdoorsy lifestyle.

Obviously, everyone has to do their part to reduce air pollution, and there is not much an individual can do to avoid poor air quality other than spend less time outside during bad days.

However, as more and more green technology becomes mainstream, air quality can improve. In fact, there is good evidence that enacting air quality control measures can lead to quick and dramatic improvements. So while there is plenty of doom and gloom, there is also reason to hope, particularly as it becomes clear the impact air quality has on our quality of life.