Canberra, Australia, 5/01/2020, Smoke coming from nearby forest fires creates high pollution and covers Canberra with a thick fog. People need to wear mask to breathe.
Air Pollution: Here for All Seasons?
An email in my inbox today proclaimed, “it’s September and we’re heading into pollution season in many regions.” I was taken aback. Does pollution have a season? Of course, there is seasonal variability to certain pollutants but, unfortunately, pollution lives with us in and outside our homes in every season.
There is the invisible pollution: the sneaky emissions off-gassing from our furniture materials, released from our air fresheners, and emitted from our gas appliances. There is the noticeable pollution: a bus or a car idling with a discernible smell. And then there is the hazardous air pollution we are experiencing now from the wildfires wreaking havoc the West. The orange sky, ash on our cars and baby strollers, and air thick with smoke. Cities like Portland (Oregon), San Francisco, and Seattle are choking on some of the worst air in the world.
As climate change accelerates, wildfires are rapidly becoming more intense, destructive, and dangerous. In 2016, researchers estimated that under future climate change more than 82 million people will experience a 57 percent increase in the frequency and 31 percent increase in the intensity of consecutive days with high air pollution from wildfires. It feels like those days are upon us.
Exposure to outdoor air pollution from human-caused sources is now the greatest environmental risk factor for early death in the United States, responsible for 100,000–200,000 early deaths per year. That’s more than car crashes and murders combined. I’ve certainly feared both those types of deaths, but dying from exposure to air pollution? Not something many of us fear.
That’s the bad news. But the good news is that much of the pollution we generate is preventable. Of those 100,000–200,000 early deaths, around half are caused by the burning of fossil fuels.
We are all hoping for relief from the fires ravaging the West, and we are saddened for those who have lost their lives or family members, their homes and businesses, and for the loss of trees, wildlife, and habitat. But when wildfire season winds down, our awareness of air pollution must not wane. Elevating awareness of air pollution is the crucial first step in fighting it.
Unfortunately, timely, reliable information on the air we breathe is not always easy to find. And once we do find the air quality data, we are often left without knowing how to improve the air. Here are four broad steps that policymakers and individuals can take now to elevate air quality action—from the most global to the most local.
1. Country, state, and city policies must include air pollution mitigation strategies
Globally nine out of every ten people breathe unhealthy air. The United Nations launched the world’s first clean air day this month (September 7th) to draw attention to this important issue. Over 35 cities have signed the Clean Air Cities Declaration which commits them to meeting World Health Organization air quality guidelines by 2030 and to enact substantive policies by 2025 to address sources of air pollution. Signatory cities have committed to a host of planned actions.
2. Install air quality sensors in every neighborhood
How many of us have recently tried to find out what the air quality is like near home? I googled every place my husband and I have lived— East Coast, Midwest, and the West. The closest sensors ranged from 4 to 51 miles from home. Having localized and accessible data can help us plan: when to run fans, take the kids to the playground, and walk the dog.
The impact of air pollution is disproportionate. Lower income communities and people of color experience the worst air and resulting health impacts. Sensor data is needed to provide more visibility into this issue and prioritize target areas for intervention.
Current sensor data leaves too many in the dark, as the closest monitor is likely many miles away. The responsibility for these sensors should fall to federal, state, and local governments who can monitor and maintain the hardware. In the absence of that, individuals are logging their own data with low-cost sensors, like PurpleAir, creating a network of thousands of devices.
3. Prioritize air quality at schools, particularly those in wildfire risk zones
The state of our school’s indoor air can be better. In addition to sensors in every neighborhood, we should have them at every school. Ventilation is critical to healthy air indoors. Children even tend to achieve higher test scores in reading and math in well ventilated classrooms compared to poorly ventilated classrooms. And it can help reduce the transmission of COVID.
Harvard Healthy Buildings and CU Boulder teamed up to create a free tool to help calculate what size portable air cleaners can be used in schools (it also works for your home). Denver’s new Love My Air program partners with public schools to create a network of sensors to provide real-time hyper local data. The goal of the program is to raise awareness and empower the community to reduce air pollution.
4. Have a plan for your “safe room” when it’s not safe to go outdoors
It sounds apocalyptic but the need can become quickly. In Colorado, here’s how we created a safe room when the outdoor air was unhealthy: close all windows and doors, pull shades or blinds to help cool the room, and purify the air.
There is a lot of information on air cleaners and it is complicated- that’s when I turn to advice from trusted experts like Shelly Miller of UC Boulder. We purchased these two air purifiers. According to the indoor air quality sensor I used, these air purifiers worked: our air pollution levels steadily dropped, dipping into the green “healthy” zone.
You can also make your own air purifier with a box fan and a HEPA filter for less than $25. Portable filters can help with wildfire smoke and the coronavirus indoors. Finally, reduce indoor activities like cooking with gas or cleaning with bleach that contribute to poor indoor air regardless of outdoor conditions.
Wildfire season will look different in the future: it will be longer, more intense, and affect more of us. It is one of the many reasons to double down on the fight against climate change. And while shifting away from fossil fuels will simultaneously reduce air pollution, what we do in the interim to protect ourselves and our families is largely up to us.
Those who wield the greatest power to safeguard our air are regulators. Policymakers must commit to reducing pollution from all sources. A critical first step is to install air quality sensors in every neighborhood and every school. And though I wish we hadn’t arrived at this point; we should be empowered with the knowledge of how to protect the air inside our homes.