The best air quality apps to view maps and forecasts amid wildfire smoke

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Residents of the eastern US unaccustomed to the effects of wildfires will be hit firsthand this week as smoke and air pollution from fires in Canada spread across the Midwest, Ohio Valley, Northeast and mid-Atlantic .

Wildfires in western states have previously driven smoke east. But this week’s Canadian fires resulted in some US cities having their worst air quality on record, with New York City and Toronto having air quality readings among the worst in the world. Experts urge caution: smoke from large fires fills the air with tiny particles, and if those particles sink low enough, they can be harmful to human breathing. Millions of people are currently under air quality warnings, and more fires are at risk in Michigan, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

The full health effects of breathing polluted air are still unknown. However, studies have shown that exposure to fine particulate matter in the air is linked to heart attacks, heart failure and stroke, reports the Environmental Protection Agency. Children, the elderly and those with diabetes, heart or respiratory conditions are particularly vulnerable to the harmful effects of dirty air. People with asthma or other respiratory conditions may notice the effects of polluted air right away, and Harvard University researchers have released a study showing higher numbers of coronavirus Covid-19 cases and deaths among people exposed to wildfire smoke.

The good news is that government agencies have air quality monitors across the country and report the collected data to the EPA. Combine that with air quality readings from home sensors like PurpleAir, and you get a pretty good picture of air quality in a given area. Just grab your phone and apps like the EPA’s AirNow, and they’ll alert you to local air quality and let you know if it’s safe to spend time outside.

These apps measure air quality using a 500-point scale called the US Air Quality Index (AQI). Scores from zero to 50 are considered good, and scores from 51 to 100 are considered fair. According to the EPA, any number above 100 is considered “unhealthy for sensitive groups,” such as children, the elderly, and those with heart or lung conditions. If the number is over 200, the AirNow app advises members of sensitive groups to stay indoors.

If you want to add an air quality check to your morning routine, here are four apps that will make it easy for you.

For NBC meteorologist Rob Mayeda, the EPA’s AirNow app is his tool of choice. It’s also the most thorough.

Use the Home tab in the bottom menu to check the day’s air quality at a glance, and tap Details below the AQI display to see recommendations like “Limit outdoor activities” or “Stay indoors.” . If you travel frequently, you can add more places on the Places tab and swipe left and right on the home screen to switch places.

The Smoke tab is your best destination for quick wildfire information. If you pinch your fingers to zoom out, you can watch the smoke plumes as they travel. The map also shows fire incidents. The tiny, colored shapes represent air quality readings from the EPA and US Forest Service monitors, as well as the more accessible (but less accurate) PurpleAir sensors that people can buy themselves. The legend shows what the colors mean: green represents the best air quality and purple the worst. Taken together, these readings give a good overview of what’s been happening in the areas currently and over the past few hours, Mayeda said.

PurpleAir sensors are great for hyper-local information and up-to-the-minute updates. However, EPA researchers have found that sensors tend to overestimate AQI readings, making the air appear worse than it is. According to the EPA, AirNow uses high-quality, regulatory-compliant monitor readings to optimize PurpleAir data, resulting in more accurate measurements.

If you would like to contribute to PurpleAir’s air quality data network, you can purchase a PurpleAir sensor for your home or yard for around $200.

The BreezoMeter app rates the amount of pollen from three sources – trees, weeds and grass – on a scale of 1 to 5. Tap the flower icon at the bottom of the menu and see the three-day pollen forecast for your area. According to BreezoMeter’s website, the allergy model is based on the type and number of plants in your area, as well as weather conditions that affect pollen emission.

The best air quality widget—those little windows of information floating on your device’s home screen—depends on what information you’re looking for.

Even within a small area, air quality can vary significantly. If you want to take a look at readings from various sensors, use Air Quality Reader, a simple app developed by Salesforce President and Chief Operating Officer Bret Taylor. The widget displays a set of AQI measurements from your region, adjusted using the EPA algorithm.

If you find those tiny numbers difficult to read, the Paku app might be a better option. It shows a single reading from a nearby PurpleAir sensor. For a more accurate reading, open the app, tap the circle with two lines in the right menu, and select the US EPA conversion.

To add a widget to your iPhone’s home screen, find an empty space and press and hold your finger. Your apps should start jiggling and a small plus sign will appear in the top corner. Tap on it and you will see the available widgets. Choose the one you want, choose how you want it to appear, and tap Add Widget. You can then place it where you want it by dragging it like you would any other app.

You’ll find that all of these air quality apps ask for access to your location. The widgets require it, but if you don’t want to share it, the apps themselves will work without location services enabled – just enter your location manually.

The AirCare app offers a “kids mode” with a simplified interface and a cute mascot. However, if you want to encourage your kids to check the air quality before they go outside, their smartphone’s built-in weather app is the best choice.

BreezoMeter readings are built right into the Weather app on iPhones running iOS 14.3 or later – just scroll down past the weather forecasts. Current Samsung smartphones also list AQI in their pre-installed weather apps.