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Seattle’s air quality is equal to stagnant winter air

Haze blocks the sun at the Foss Waterway near the 11th Street bridge in Tacoma. (Photo by Ed Marceau)

In the midst a record-breaking heat wave and a thick, smoky haze, Seattle residents are forced to choose between cooling off with poor air quality or sweating bullets inside.

If you need to crack a window to cool off, how bad is it really?

“Generally, studies show that indoor air quality is better in your home or in a building, even if you don’t have filtration equipment,” said Erik Saganic, an air quality forecaster with the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency.

“If the air quality improves outside, we recommend you open your windows as fast as you can to get that clean air in,” he said.

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Currently, smoke from nearly 1 million acres of wildfires in British Columbia has moved down into Western Washington. Cities as far east as Pullman and as far south as Vancouver are seeing compromised air quality. Areas around Puyallup, Wenatchee and Cheeka Peak are experiencing the worst of it, with air quality levels reaching a “very unhealthy” rating Thursday (one level below “Hazardous”). The smoke plume is so large, it can be viewed from space.

Air quality rating in Seattle

Air quality is measured through the Air Quality Index, which ranges from 0 to 500 — the higher the number, the lower the quality. Any rating below 50 is considered good, while ratings above 100 are considered “unhealthy for sensitive groups.” Seattle’s rating has hovered between 150-175 this week. Despite that higher number, it’s not unusual for the Seattle region — in winter.

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“The levels we are seeing now we do see on occasion in the winter months when the air gets stagnant and we have a lot of wood smoke from home heating,” Saganic said. “But we’re at home and it’s dark outside so you don’t see the smoke. Now it’s really visible in the summer and a lot of people are out and about. We’ll see that about 15-20 times in the winter. But to have it like this in the summer is really unique.”

The Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department has been advising people to stay indoors, according to KIRO 7. The health department is asking sports teams to cancel outdoor practice and advising people to not exercise outdoors.

Officials say the air quality in the city is so poor that it’s twice as bad as the air in Beijing. The Chinese capital city is world renowned for its air pollution.

Poor air quality from the smoke is expected to linger through Saturday, Saganic said. Western Washington might get a breather after that, but it’s possible the haze could return Monday and Tuesday. Your best chance of a breath of fresher air is on Sunday. In short, open your windows at your own risk until the air quality rating drops below 50.

DIY: Staying cool with fresh air

Consider using a fan, air purifier, or air conditioner. People can also try face masks to battle the poor air quality, but Saganic notes they don’t always fit well. He said that face masks must be rated N95 or better, and they can be found at most hardware stores.

You can also try some DIY projects, such as this box fan/air filter combo. Saganic said it’s worth a try if you get a decent filter.

“If the rating of the filter is MERV 13 or higher on the box fan, you can get some benefit from that, potentially,” he said.

There’s also the classic ice cooler AC if you want to keep your windows shut. All you need is a cooler, ice, and a fan.

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