Air Quality Index (AQI)

Computation of the AQI requires an air pollutant concentration over a specified averaging period, obtained from an air monitor or model. Taken together, concentration and time represent the dose of the air pollutant. Health effects corresponding to a given dose are established by epidemiological research. Air pollutants vary in potency, and the function used to convert from air pollutant concentration to AQI varies by pollutant. Air quality index values are typically grouped into ranges. Each range is assigned a descriptor, a color code, and a standardized public health advisory.

The AQI can increase due to an increase of air emissions (for example, during rush hour traffic or when there is an upwind forest fire) or from a lack of dilution of air pollutants. Stagnant air, often caused by an anticyclone, temperature inversion, or low wind speeds lets air pollution remain in a local area, leading to high concentrations of pollutants, chemical reactions between air contaminants and hazy conditions.

On a day when the AQI is predicted to be elevated due to fine particle pollution, an agency or public health organization might:

  • advise sensitive groups, such as the elderly, children, and those with respiratory or cardiovascular problems to avoid outdoor exertion.
  • declare an “action day” to encourage voluntary measures to reduce air emissions, such as using public transportation.
  • recommend the use of masks to keep fine particles from entering the lungs.

During a period of very poor air quality, such as an air pollution episode, when the AQI indicates that acute exposure may cause significant harm to the public health, agencies may invoke emergency plans that allow them to order major emitters (such as coal burning industries) to curtail emissions until the hazardous conditions abate.

Air Quality Index Levels of Health Concern Numerical Value Meaning
Good  0 to 50 Air quality is considered satisfactory, and air pollution poses little or no risk
Moderate  51 to 100 Air quality is acceptable; however, for some pollutants there may be a moderate health concern for a very small number of people who are unusually sensitive to air pollution.
Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups 101 to 150 Members of sensitive groups may experience health effects. The general public is not likely to be affected.
Unhealthy 151 to 200 Everyone may begin to experience health effects; members of sensitive groups may experience more serious health effects.
Very Unhealthy 201 to 300 Health warnings of emergency conditions. The entire population is more likely to be affected.
Hazardous 301 to 500 Health alert: everyone may experience more serious health effects.