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Students Raise a Flag and Raise Air Quality Awareness

On Friday, May 24th, GASP and the Environmental Charter School (ECS) raised a green air quality flag, launching the first EPA School Flag Program in Southwest Pennsylvania.

The program makes air quality conditions visible to children, one of the groups affected most by poor air quality. Children are more susceptible to air pollution than adults due to their developing lungs, large lung-to-body weight ratio, and high level of exercise.

ECS Students With Flags

Earlier that morning, the weather forecast called for chilly temperatures and rain. I kept my fingers crossed and hoped the clouds wouldn’t douse the spirit of the day, but still, I threw on some layers and a raincoat, preparing for the worst. Ms. Micco, one of the teachers helping to lead the program, told me that that ECS is a “rain or shine” kind of place, so the weather wasn’t about to stop us.

A quick check of the air quality forecast didn’t dampen our plans either. Friday was predicted to be a green day, which meant that outdoor air quality was considered satisfactory, posing little risk to public health. In this way, it was a good day for our event and a good day to be outdoors.

When the weather forecast calls for rain, we prepare with raincoats and umbrellas. Similarly, when the air quality forecast is for dirty air, we can protect ourselves by adjusting our activities. Yet unlike the weather, air quality is not as observable.

In fact, the smallest particle pollutants, the stuff you can’t see, are the most dangerous type of air pollution. Big particles are typically blocked by your body’s natural airway filters, but smaller particles pass through and head into your lungs. Another main source of air pollution, ozone, is also invisible, and highly reactive with our airway tissue. The EPA School Flag Program is a hands-on activity that makes air quality conditions visible to schools and the community so that they can take steps, if necessary, to minimize their exposure to high levels of air pollution.

Excited and brimming with energy, I watched as the newly minted GASP Club, an ECS student group that formed to lead the School Flag Program, prepared themselves for all of the attention they were about to get. The teachers laid out the plan for the morning. Speakers recited their lines, changed a few words, and recited again. Others eagerly attached their “GASP” badges, threw on their coats, and lined up ready for the spotlight.  Hear some of the students here.

Outside the school, the crowd spilled onto the side street and lawn, and students held the rainbow of Air Quality Index colors surrounded by fluttering little green flags. Then, we all took a deep breath and cheered loudly as the green flag was hoisted up in front of the school, signaling good-to-go air quality and just the beginning of a program GASP hopes to see at other schools soon.

Raising the Green Flag

Students in the GASP Club at ECS will check the air quality forecast daily, and raise a flag that corresponds to the Air Quality Index (AQI), which measures the amount of pollution in the air. After observing the flag color, school personnel can take actions if necessary to protect the health of their students. Having an alternative indoor activity, shortening practices, having an asthma action plan, or decreasing the amount of deep breathing during activity are all actions that can be considered during days of high air pollution.

The daily air quality forecast for ambient air will not necessarily inform schools of point source air pollution. The program encourages schools to choose exercise areas away from busy streets, idling vehicles, or other sources of air pollution.

Friday’s event was the first step in raising awareness. Local media covered the launch of the program as well. Find here the news report from WTAE, and the article from WESA. The Breathe Project also blogged about our event; click here to read the post.

Next school year, GASP will take the program to many additional sites throughout the region. If your school or organization is interested in starting its own flag program, please contact Karrie Kressler at Finally, get the air quality forecast for your area by visiting here.

Air Quality Index Outdoor Activity Guidance for Schools: Numbers in parentheses are the AQI Values.

(0-50) GREEN – “GOOD” – Air quality is considered satisfactory, and air pollution poses little or no risk. It’s a great day to be active outside!

(51-100) YELLOW – “MODERATE” – Air quality is acceptable; however, for some pollutants there may be a moderate health concern for a small number of people who are sensitive to air pollution. In general, it’s still a good day to be active outside. Students who are sensitive to air pollution could have symptoms, so watch for coughing or shortness of breath. These are signs to take it easier.

(101-150) ORANGE – “UNHEALTHY FOR SENSITIVE GROUPS – It’s OK for students to be active outside, especially for short activities such as recess and physical education (PE) class. For longer activities such as athletic practice, students should take more breaks and do less intense activities. Watch for symptoms such as coughing or shortness of breath. Again, students with asthma are likely to be affected and should follow their asthma action plans and keep their quick relief medicine handy.

(151-200) RED – “UNHEALTHY” – Everyone may begin to experience health effects, and members of sensitive groups may experience more serious health effects. For all outdoor activities, students should take more breaks and do less intense activities. Watch for symptoms such as coughing or shortness of breath. Consider moving activities indoors or rescheduling. Students with asthma should follow their asthma action plans and keep their quick relief medicine handy.

(201-300) PURPLE – “VERY UNHEALTHY” – Health alert: everyone may experience more serious health effects. Move all activities indoors or reschedule to another day.

Post by Karrie Kressler, SCA Green Cities Fellow with GASP

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