As endless fires destroyed communities in Northern California this fall, surrounding populations experienced something more benign but just as deadly. The rise in pollution reached record highs, with San Francisco and Oakland beating the bad air quality levels of smog-choked capitals like Beijing. This led many people to buy air safety gear, like gas masks.
It’s not like the people were being too careful. In fact, pollution experts say those within a 100-mile radius of fire-ravaged areas should always be cognizant of air quality.
Problematic fire fumes include ozone, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide — all bad substances also produced by the dirty coal-based industries. The mix is especially dangerous since it’s microscopic in size and can get deep into lungs and bloodstreams. Worse, these carcinogens can’t easily get cleared out of our systems.
So what’s the short- and long-term effect of fume inhalation? According to the International Energy Agency, millions worldwide will die of air pollution by the end of the decade. The World Health Organization (WHO) says more than “92 percent of the world is breathing polluted air that doesn’t meet [its] quality standards,” contributing to “serious lung and heart damage.”
Older people, pregnant women, and children are in particular danger. A study from UNICEF found toxic air pollution affects pregnant women into miscarriages and low childbirth weight.
So air pollution is clearly a problem beyond fire-ravaged areas. If you’re thinking about creating a plan to handle it, it’s important to buy things that’ll help you.
I’ve gathered a few of the top to help you get started.
The worst tiny particulate matter substances are PM2.5 and PM10. They are toxic mixes of indoor and outdoor carbon pollution, as well as forest fires. The best purifying devices filter out rooms to over 80 percent.
The Coway Mighty 5500-2 is one of the most well-regarded units on the market. According to the New York Times’ product site The Wirecutter, the Coway sucks up particulates at an awesome rate for medium-to-large rooms, saying that even “though it’s rated for spaces of 350 square feet, in 30 minutes it cut particulate pollution nearly in half in an apartment space almost twice that large.” Users of this device have praised its long life and value opportunity, costing between $200 and $250 on the web.
If you want to try other units, some states publish lists that certify for quality. The California Air Resources Board, for example, published a list of purifiers that meet its standards for “electrical safety and ozone emissions.”
If you don’t have a purifier, a well-functioning air conditioner unit can filter out carcinogens to an acceptable degree. The high quality of modern AC units is the reason experts recommended workers stay inside homes or work buildings for the duration of the day during the Bay fires.
You should also consider buying more plants. While they can’t suck up particulates near-instantaneously like purifiers, plants filter other types of pollution. According to NASA, trees can remove air pollution “through the leaf stomata pores outside layers of the leaf surfaces.” The Aeronatics organization says the proper ratio for air-cleaning plants is 15 to 18 plants of eight-inch diameters for every 1,800 foot in specific homes.
Mobile and Web Applications
There are many pollution trackers available on iOS and Android platforms but my favorite is Plume Air. Made by a Paris-based company of the same name, the app send instant readings of pollution changes to users from software taking in data from sensors around the world. The readings are also analyzed by an in-house data and atmospheric science team.
But the best thing about it is probably its user interface. You don’t have to know the difference between carcinogens or the exact numerical threshold of air safety. With a simple visual emoji, it can tell you whether it’s safe to go running or to stay inside.
Beyond mobile apps, the best site available for pollution readings is AirNow.gov. It doesn’t have the full-day granularity of Plume Labs’ app, but does give accurate information to plan your day.
Many companies launched mobile pollution sensors in recent years but the London-based Drayson Technologies’ CleanSpace is often named as the best. Its Tag device is a carbon monoxide sensor that “monitors air pollution that uses machine-learning to create hyper-local air pollution information.” Most tag it to their body to pick up readings throughout the day. CleanSpace also uses little energy to run, taking power from wavebands of the electromagnetic spectrum.
If you want to have a sensor in or around your home instead of your body, researchers say the Purple Air PA-II sensor is a good option. Connected to a 2.4 GHz wireless network, the sensor uses lasers to pick up pollution readings of particles between 0.3μm and 10μm in diameter.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency maintains a list of other medical- or expert-grade pollution sensors.
The N95 is the mask that filters out pollution. In fact, it’s not considered a mask but a respirator. According to government records, the “N95” designation means that “when subjected to careful testing, the respirator blocks at least 95% of very small (0.3 micron) test particles. Properly fitted, the filtration capabilities of N95 respirators exceed those of face masks.”
But the mask isn’t perfect. Unfortunately, many fail to fit the mask properly, invalidating its intended effect. Men with thick beards, for instance, often fail to tighten it hard enough against their faces. Also, it has been found that it can’t handle toxins like Nitrogen dioxide.
Even if you manage to fit your mask to your face, pollution can affect other parts of your body. The WHO found people in cities that exceed normal pollution levels tend to absorb toxins through the skin. This makes sense — most dangerous particles are even smaller than skin pores.
Dr. Mara Weinstein of the Schweiger Dermatology Group has found toxic air can “generate reactive oxygen species (ROS), free radicals that contribute to oxidative stress. This is damaging to the skin and can accelerate skin aging leading to premature wrinkles.” Ultimately, this condition can lead to skin cancer.
Carbon-based pollution can be stopped through political advocacy. With a direct line to city, state, and national representatives, residents can call their representatives to ensure policies are passed to lower air toxicity.
One app that can be used this way is Issue Voter. It allows residents to choose issues that matter to them and help follow the politicians that vote on them. If they’re not voting for pollution-free policies, voters can call them out with real data.