How Indoor Air Quality Became the New Wellness Fixation

Ozone, too, can have an adverse effect on our health. Up high in the atmosphere, it plays an important role in protecting us from ultraviolet radiation. But at ground level, especially indoors, it can react with various chemicals. The result, sometimes, can be temporary paralysis of the cilia that help expel phlegm from your throat.

It’s no wonder, then, that trying to get a better understanding of the air we breathe is catching on more and more. In 2018, an article in Bloomberg CityLab described how residents in Utah and Colorado, concerned with wildfire smoke and increasing levels of truck pollution, turned to tiny monitors to measure the cleanliness of the air in and around their homes. Last fall, The New York Times reported how concerned parents were even hiding air-quality monitors in backpacks as a way to gauge how well ventilated were the school buildings where they sent their kids every day.

Beyond these individual measures, there are other moves happening to glean more insight into the air we breathe when we’re not outside.

Poppendieck is a member of the Indoor Air Quality and Ventilation Group within the federal government’s National Institute of Standards and Technology. Since February, he and about a dozen other researchers have been involved in one of the largest studies ever conducted on the quality of the air inside, an effort that wraps up this month. A key part of the study, which is happening at a residential test facility in Maryland, is trying to determine the effects of pollutants such as wildfire smoke, urban smog, and common commercial products used in cooking and cleaning. How do these various elements affect us as they permeate the atmosphere in our apartments, houses, and places of business?

“That’s the million-dollar question,” Poppendieck says. “Indoor air matters, but we don’t understand it well.”

To be clear, there is some correlation between indoor air and human health. It’s not difficult for the person with allergies to asthma to know when, or when not, the air inside where they live or work is messing with their health, Mendez says. And who wants mold, commonly linked to allergic reactions like sneezing, runny noses, and itchy, red eyes, inside their home? The question is over, precisely, what connections can be drawn between crummy indoor air and personal health.

On that point, Poppendieck cautions people against relying too heavily on air-quality monitors. “Consumer-grade sensors are really good at measuring changes, but they’re not going to tell you if [the air is] healthy or safe,” he says. “You could have a well-ventilated space, but if you have a gas station next door? No consumer-grade sensors would detect that.”

More important, according to Mendez, is doing your best to ventilate indoor spaces. Turn on the range hood when you’re cooking. Open windows to circulate indoor air. And running an indoor air filter can also help—as it did for Krieger.

“People that I talk to, if you have the money to get an air filter, you get one, you keep it on hand, and you run it,” she says. “That’s just our normal part of life now.”

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