Western wildfire smoke affects people across the US
As wildfires ravage the western U.S. the smoke is traveling thousands of miles and affecting air quality on the opposite coast.
Many of us experienced it this summer: Smoke from the wildfires out west made it all the way to Indiana, causing hazier skies, a more red-ish looking sun and worse air quality. In fact, Hoosiers were encouraged to stay inside during the last week in June.
We all know that the outdoor air can pose a threat to your health with emissions from cars and industry spewing into the atmosphere.
But is the inside air we breathe actually a safer bet?
As the temperatures grow colder and daylight hours shorter, people are hunkering down for the winter — spending more time inside after a summer and fall of frolicking out in the sun. But do people need to be concerned about the indoor air they’re breathing, too?
That’s a question one of our readers wants answers to. So for this edition of the Scrub Hub, we will be looking at whether indoor or outdoor air quality is worse, and if our inside air can pose a threat to our health.
We spoke with an expert to see what the differences are between inside and outside air. To know the different steps you can take, keep reading.
Short answer: Indoor air can cause serious problems
Our indoor air might not be quite as clean as we think.
There are a variety of sources of indoor and outdoor air pollution that can each cause their own health problems. When it comes to outdoor air, one of the biggest sources of pollutants comes from what’s called fine particulate matter. It’s uniquely formed by the combustion of things such as gas in cars, coal burning power plants and the wildfires from over the summer.
Also a concern for the outdoors is ozone, which is especially harmful on hot days but goes down significantly in the winter. Both of these pollutants can constitute a serious health burden, degrading lung function or constricting airways.
But once you go inside, that pollution is largely kept out. When you look at what constitutes a potential health risk inside, it’s a different mix, according to Gabe Filippelli, the director of IUPUI’s Center for Urban Health.
Several of the indoor air sources are well-known, even if not always on the forefront of people’s mind. For example, carbon monoxide is always a concern, Filippelli said. It’s found in the fumes for burning fuel like with a furnace or fireplace and can poison people and animals who breathe it.
Also of concern is mold and mildew, as well as dust and dander.
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That said, there are some other potential sources that have started to become better understood in just the last few years: gas stoves and cleaning products.
Gas stoves present a different problem than carbon monoxide, Filippelli said. Rather, gas that leaks from the stoves as they are starting or even while they’re burning can lead to unsafe levels of methane in the air, which can contribute to respiratory and neurological problems.
Another one that’s pretty new, Filippelli said, is how all that cleaning might affect indoor air quality. A new study analyzing dust samples from before COVID and during the peak of COVID cleaning found that people are now exposed to double these disinfectants — and they are carcinogens that stick to the dust in your house, Fillippelli said.
“While we thought we were doing something to keep us healthy,” he said, “we were actually poisoning ourselves.”
Long answer: We have more control to improve indoor air
Now that we have a better idea of the which pollution sources are a health threat inside and outside, we can look at which presents a bigger risk.
Americans, on average, spend approximately 90% of their time indoors, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Even more, those folks who often are most susceptible to the adverse effects of pollution — such as the very young, older adults, and individuals with respiratory or cardiovascular diseases — tend to spend even more of their time indoors.
And inside, the air is much more concentrated. In fact, the EPA says that the inside concentrations of some pollutants can be two to five times higher than typical outdoor levels.
That makes sense: While there can be high and harmful levels of pollutants outside, it’s also a wide open space where those pollutants are diluted in the open air.
Still, it’s hard to say whether indoor or outdoor air quality is worse, Filippelli said. There are different types of chemicals and different levels of exposure. Although the indoor air is more concentrated and we spend more time in it, we also have more control of our indoors, Filippelli said.
Especially in a residential setting, people can make changes that reduce their potential risks and exposure to indoor air pollutants.
Some of those changes are super easy, according to Filippelli. For example, he suggests not buying and using disinfectant products with chemicals in them. Instead, homeowners can use natural products such as vinegar and lemon juice — and there are different potential mixes and ratios available online.
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Another simple solution is to dust with a damp cloth and not a feather duster. The latter often kicks up more dust than it captures, Filippelli said, and that exposes folks to whatever chemicals might be clinging onto the dust.
He also suggests that homeowners have their furnace inspected to make sure it’s not leaking carbon monoxide. They should also inspect areas where there is a lot of moisture and make sure to keep them clean to prevent mold and mildew growth.
While those fixes do require a bit more time and money, Filippelli said they are important and necessary to maintain the health of a home. Both carbon monoxide and mold can be hard — if not impossible — to detect and often emanate from a specific area of the home. But they can get in the air and do damage throughout the whole house.
The last and biggest ticket item is to replace the gas stove. Filippelli acknowledges this is an expensive item and will be a big shift in cooking for a lot of families, but he said it’s something for families to consider when doing a renovation or updating old appliances.
It will not only help with indoor air quality, but also moving toward electric appliances that will soon be powered with clean energy helps to lower climate change-causing emissions.
“Some of these changes save you money from not buying things like cleaning products, and some of the inspections need to be done anyways,” Filippelli said. “And some are more long-term and expensive, but all these changes help give you better indoor air quality.”
Do you have more questions about air quality and how it affects your health? Ask us! Submit a question to the Scrub Hub below.
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Call IndyStar reporter Sarah Bowman at 317-444-6129 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook: @IndyStarSarah. Connect with IndyStar’s environmental reporters: Join The Scrub on Facebook.
IndyStar’s environmental reporting project is made possible through the generous support of the nonprofit Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust.
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