Recently we traveled to India shortly after a “state of emergency” was declared due to the high levels of pollution. Levels were off the charts and deemed so hazardous that schools were shut down. Doctors equated breathing the air to smoking 50 cigarettes a day. The photo above wasn’t taken at night, but after sunrise when the pollution levels caused a thick heavy cloud over the area.

For the Delhi surrounding area, this is a yearly occurrence caused by a perfect storm of vehicle & industry pollutants, byproduct of farmland burning, and a lack of sea breeze due to geographic location. However traveling in pollution is not unique to India. China, specifically Beijing, is notorious for its high pollution levels.

Map of Air Quality Around The Globe

As this map shows, there are several regions (those in red, orange, and yellow) that have poor air quality. Similar to Delhi’s equation for pollution, each region has its own unique cocktail pollutants that contribute to air quality. Wind patterns further carry pollutants from one region to another – as seen in the areas in Asia downwind of China. The recent fires in California caused spiked levels of air pollution previously unseen on that region of North America.

Given this global and growing phenomenon we thought we would cover in this post how to check for air quality and how to best protect yourself when traveling in an area with high pollution.

What Is Air Quality?

One measurement of air quality is by particulate matter. Particulate matters are tiny particles of solid or liquid matter. They are suspended in the air and range in size from rather large (household dust, sand…) to microscopic (lead, mercury…). The concentration of PM in the air is given in micro-grams per cubic meter of air or µg/m3. Understanding PM requires some complex formulas and calculation. Luckily, the Air Quality Index provides a much more user friendly Index for understanding air quality. The Air Quality Index also know as the AQI. According to the Environmental Protection Agency:

The AQI is an index for reporting daily air quality. It tells you how clean or polluted your air is, and what associated health effects might be a concern for you. The AQI focuses on health effects you may experience within a few hours or days after breathing polluted air. EPA calculates the AQI for five major air pollutants regulated by the Clean Air Act: ground-level ozone, particle pollution (also known as particulate matter), carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide. For each of these pollutants, EPA has established national air quality standards to protect public health .Ground-level ozone and airborne particles are the two pollutants that pose the greatest threat.

Chart of AQI Levels

This chart further translates the AQI into segments of health concern along with how the pollution should handle the current AQI. When we traveled to Delhi, AQI peaked at 490 deep in the hazardous level.

Here is where you find the AQI for cities within the US.

Here is where you can find AQI internationally.

How Does Pollution Affect Your Health?

There are a myriad of side effects of exposure to pollution. One report estimates that 2.5M people died in India in 2015 due to pollution and another 1.8M in China. Exposure to high levels of air pollution, especially over many years, can affect human respiratory and inflammatory systems, and can lead to heart disease, stroke and lung cancer.

Quan lived in Shanghai for five years, during her last year AQI levels in Shanghai reached all time highs and became one of the driving factors for her departure from the city. As a former resident of one of these environment she can attest that a hacking cough, lethargy, and various other side effects come as a result of this.

As short term visitors to a highly polluted area, it is impossible to escape these symptoms. We were only in the Delhi and Agra area for three days and here are the symptoms we felt even while wearing masks constantly:

  • Slight headache
  • Burning eyes and throat
  • Slight cough / tickle in the throat
  • Lethargy

The air was thick to the point where you can visibly see the pollutants like a thick smog. There is a slight thick taste as well in your mouth. What was worst is that many times the indoor environment was as bad as outdoors. At the airport for example where the doors open and close constantly, the fog remained over the terminal. Whether indoors, on a train, or on the plane as we landed the fog seeps in so there is no escape.

How To Protect Against Pollution

One of the best way is to completely avoid areas with high pollution. This is where the links above to checking global AQI come in handy. While we loved our visit to the Taj Mahal, had we researched the AQI beforehand we may have had second thoughts on the visit. For business trips where it’s unavoidable to travel to a high AQI city or if you get unlucky in travel like us, here are some tips for traveling in pollution:

  • Buy a N95 or P95 mask. While surgical masks protect from germs coming in and out they don’t actually do anything in terms of filtering out particulates. Here is a N95 mask that you can purchase before your trip, and a P95 mask.  An estimated 95% of particulates can be filtered out via these masks.
  • Wear the mask indoors: We put on our masks as soon as the plane landed and only took it off after we were in an enclosed area. Even then, air quality indoors is not guaranteed as old air filters and poor ventilation can drive outdoor pollutants indoors. Generally speaking we wore them whenever we saw the thick fog.
  • Avoid outdoor exercise and if the AQI is at hazardous levels consider avoiding indoor exercise as well. The trade off in health benefits for a cardio work out verses the additional intake of air is up to your discretion.
  • Avoid tuk tuks, bicycling, or other open air transportation. We didn’t do a great job following this rule as tuk tuks navigated the traffic much better than taxis. We also had to spend a bit of time outdoors waiting for a delayed train. We wore masks, but noticed how our eyes burned after a ride.

Wearing our face mask while waiting outdoors for our delayed train (train stations do not have indoor waiting areas)

At the Taj Mahal with our face masks