Air pollution is a fact of life in Los Angeles, where on the really bad days it feels like you can almost chew the smog. That hasn’t been much of a problem lately, as the novel coronavirus pandemic has cleared skies. Now that I’m spending more time inside, however, I’m giving much more consideration to the quality of the air within my front door. It turns out there’s a lot we can do about both problems without leaving home.
Worldwide, air pollution kills about 7 million people each year, according to the World Health Organization’s Global Platform on Air Quality and Health. Poor air quality can be attributed to such a wide range of premature deaths—heart disease, stroke, chronic respiratory disease, and cancer—that epidemiologists have dubbed it the “invisible killer.”
Living in LA, the brown band on the horizon serves as a near-constant reminder of that danger, but I got a lot more worried about air quality once I had kids. In 2018, the first-ever Global Conference on Air Pollution and Health released a report on just how toxic air pollution is for children, noting that 93 percent of the world’s population under the age of 15 is breathing dangerously high levels of the fine particulate matter known as PM 2.5, a pollutant that’s largely attributed to vehicle emissions in the U.S.
Not only are children under 15 more likely to suffer adverse effects from airborne pollutants, children under 5 are at a heightened risk. Being exposed to particulate pollution at a young age can trigger respiratory illness and asthma, and sustained exposure makes children more susceptible to cardiovascular and pulmonary diseases later in life.
Living a little too close to a freeway here in LA with two kids under 5, I wondered how much more I should be doing about the black soot that accumulates on our windowsills. I knew exactly who to ask: Adriano L. Martinez, an environmental lawyer who tweets about air-quality issues at @LASmogGuy. As part of his case work, Martinez often has to monitor indoor air quality for people who live near major roads, industrial centers, or warehouses with heavy truck traffic. He also has a 4-year-old whom he’s trying to protect from LA’s worst air days.
A majority of air pollution deaths, about 4 million deaths globally, are attributed to outdoor air pollution. But about 3 million deaths per year are caused by household pollutants that originate indoors. Most of these deaths occur in developing nations where people use cookstoves or heaters that burn dirty fuels. But U.S. households have their own indoor pollution problem, says Martinez: our beloved gas ranges.
“One of the big things we’re starting to understand a little more is the problems with cooking,” he says. In 2020, a major report by the Rocky Mountain Institute, Mothers Out Front, Physicians for Social Responsibility, and the Sierra Club warned that gas stoves are exposing Americans to unsafe levels of pollutants like carbon monoxide and nitrous oxide. “Gas stoves may be exposing tens of millions of people to levels of air pollution in their homes that would be illegal outdoors under national air quality standards.”
A hood and fan that siphons toxic fumes out of your kitchen can make a big difference, even if you’re just boiling water, Martinez says. “Try to run the fan every time you’re cooking.” Better yet, he says, take advantage of local rebate and incentive programs that might let you trade in your gas stove for a cleaner, more efficient induction range.
Another good way to keep potential pollutants at bay is cleaning—something else you might be doing a lot right now. Wiping down surfaces and vacuuming frequently helps keep rooms free of dust, pollen, and mold, all of which can impact air quality. But as you’re cleaning, also pay attention to labels, as some cleaning products contain volatile organic chemicals, or VOCs, which can end up irritating lungs.
The next line of attack is preventing how much of that outdoor air gets in. Continuous insulation, including triple-paned windows, is the best possible way to preserve good indoor air quality, but retrofits are also an incredibly expensive investment. Martinez says if you’re not particularly well-protected from the elements, a high-quality filter on your HVAC system—look for a minimum efficiency reporting value, or MERV rating, of no lower than 8—can go a long way in trapping airborne pollutants. Just remember to change it frequently. (If you’ve changed that filter in a high-pollution area, the grossness will traumatize you enough to provide all the reminder you need.)
If you don’t have a centralized air-filtering system, plug-in air purifiers can protect you by using a high-efficiency particulate air, or HEPA, filter that traps fine particles from vehicles, industrial pollution, smoke, and allergens like dust and pollen. Because we live so close to that highway, and especially during wildfire season when I can smell smoke indoors, I felt better having something that’s constantly scrubbing the air perched next to my kids’ beds as they slept at night. We purchased the highly recommended Coway AP-1512HH Mighty purifier that has a small air-quality monitor on its display. This device serves a dual purpose in our home, as it also creates exceptional white noise that helps everyone sleep.
During the novel coronavirus pandemic, there’s been a great deal of discussion around the ability of air purifiers to stop the transmission of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Scientists know that the virus is transmitted through droplets from coughs and sneezes, but they cannot rule out that the virus may also be aerosolized, or spread through airborne transmission, which is why wearing face coverings, even homemade ones, is now recommended. An air purifier won’t necessarily offer protection from the coronavirus. However, it could help reduce other pollutants that would exacerbate chronic respiratory conditions, like asthma, which would make contracting a disease like COVID-19 more dangerous. In fact, a new study shows that people who live in regions with high levels of air pollution might be more susceptible to dying from COVID-19.
Beyond respiratory concerns, there’s also growing evidence that simple in-room purifiers can clean air enough to boost cognitive development and academic performance. A remarkable study was conducted in LA after the Aliso Canyon methane gas leak, where plug-in air purifiers were installed in businesses and schools within a five-mile radius of the gas facility as part of the mitigation process. These were larger, industrial-sized units that run about $700, but just adding them to school classrooms improved test scores, the study authors say—the equivalent of cutting class size by a third. This alone seems like an excellent argument for putting at least one purifier in the same room as your child’s brain.
To keep tabs on your clean-air progress—plus provide a neat science experiment for your soon-to-be-genius kid—you can buy an air-quality monitor. Awair has a retro look that might integrate well with your decor. The monitors by IQ Air—they also make purifiers—can be configured to measure both indoor and outdoor air quality, and your information feeds into a global network of data anyone can access on the IQ Air Visual app, which is what I use. The app delivers a reading for my neighborhood each morning that helps me plan outdoor activities for the day. You may have a local environmental agency that’s produced its own app or posts air-quality updates on social media, which Martinez likes to share to keep the issue top of mind—and remind local officials about their responsibilities on bad air days.
Even if you’ve taken steps to protect your family, the best way to improve both indoor and outdoor air quality is to stop the pollution at the source. That starts by being more aware of what those sources of pollution are—and how we can all prevent them.
While big local polluters like an oil refinery, fossil-fuel storage facility, or Amazon fulfillment center might be obvious targets, chances are that most of the pollutants Americans are inhaling are from something far more pervasive: our own cars.
This is something that the coronavirus pandemic has made abundantly clear, as decreased vehicular travel due to stay-at-home orders has dramatically reduced emissions globally. In LA—the smoggiest metropolitan area in the U.S.—we’ve seen an unprecedented three straight weeks of clean air, something we haven’t experienced since 1980.
Recent clean air gains aren’t something to celebrate, as they’ve come at huge social cost, but the federal government has chosen to exploit the pandemic by pushing forward policies sure to erase those gains once the economy starts back up. Just in the last few weeks, the Trump administration has changed fuel-efficiency standards for vehicles and relaxed environmental regulations for big polluters. While people like Martinez take on those legal battles, he recommends keeping the pressure on local officials to continue air-quality improvements in your own region, even after the pandemic. “Find people on your local environmental board,” he says. “People who are placing health over the profits of polluting industries.”
As we all gaze up at bluer skies, if only temporarily, it’s also worth noting the connection between those airborne pollutants and the larger, looming crisis facing humanity. Advocating for cleaner air not only means your children will continue to breathe easier tomorrow, it’s also the best way to prevent them from inheriting a more dire future due to climate change. “The best climate strategy is to meet clean-air standards,” says Martinez. “That would be a fundamental shift from a combustion-focused society to zero-emissions everywhere.”