Air Is the New Poop

A hundred years ago, rules were developed for water coming in and poop going out. Now we have to do the same for air.

50 years ago: shag rug, open fires, shoes on in the house!
50 years ago: shag rug, open fires, shoes on in the house!.

Archive photos/ Getty Images

The title of this post, "Air Is the New Poop," is a quote from doctor and epidemiologist David N. Fisman of the University of Toronto. He was describing how engineering and science dramatically reduced deaths from typhoid, tweeting, "Prior to 1912, typhoid fever was the leading cause of death in Toronto. Children died like flies from typhoid because our sewage and drinking water were admixed."

We got laws that regulated the quality of water that came into our homes and detailed regulations on plumbing, venting, installation, and inspection of our toilets and the waste systems that went out of our homes. These were "engineering controls based on the science around how a disease REALLY spreads."

Post-pandemic, Dr. Fisman says that we have to start thinking about air quality in the same way. "We can do this with respiratory disease too. Air is the new poop."

He tells Treehugger, "It is a crazy paradox, isn't it? To think it took about 70 years for (from the time of John Snow's 1849 pamphlet to the creation of water filtration infrastructure in the 19-teens) for Toronto to take poop out of drinking water... and now we need to deal with air."

One reason that it takes so long to do this is that it is not a medical problem, but a sustainable design and engineering problem. We first solved water by taking fresh clean stuff from upstream and taking all our human wastes and dumping them downstream in rivers and lakes. It took another century to deal with the mess that caused.

We have never dealt with air as we did with water, for a number of reasons. Probably the biggest is that there was no comparable dramatic event to John Snow's pump handle, and no direct correlation between our health and the chemicals in our materials, the lead in our paints, the particulates coming from wood fireplaces, and, probably most importantly, the smoke from our cigarettes. Also, critically, there was almost nothing we could do for ventilation other than open our windows. Much has changed, but not as much as you would think because change takes time and there are still forces resisting it.

Dutch Boy lead paint

Jay Paull/ Getty Images

A good example of this is how long it took to ban lead paint. Lead made paint easier to use and gave it great coverage, but it was known since the 1920s that children eating lead paint chips suffered brain damage or even death. Lead tastes sweet, and paint chips are yummy; the Romans used lead acetate, or "sugar of lead", to sweeten wine. The lead industry fought all the way; according to David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz in The Atlantic, they first wanted to make lead-free paint a voluntary choice. Then they blamed parents for letting their kids suck on toys. It wasn't until 1978 that the federal government finally banned lead paint intended for sale to consumers, and there's still lots of it on walls and furniture.

Go Low-VOC

Compare that to the situation today with volatile organic compounds (VOCs), described by Treehugger's Heidi Wachter as carbon-containing organic chemicals in indoor air that come from building materials, furnishings, and carpet, and detach (also called off-gassing) from the product into the air. "Exposure to VOCs can lead to eye, nose, and throat irritation, headaches, damage to the central nervous system, and cancer. Some data shows that VOCs may be absorbed through the skin and absorbed into the blood."

That's why Treehugger promotes The 8 Best Zero-VOC Paints of 2022, because the industry has managed to maintain this voluntary choice. Furniture can emit VOCs like formaldehyde and are often full of toxic flame retardants, which is why our best eco-friendly couches and wallpapers are low-VOC; it is a standard for sustainable design and production but should be a mandatory standard for everyone.

Get Rid of Gas

Child lighting a gas stove
A little girl trying to light a gas stove, Washington DC, circa 1932.

Underwood Archives/Getty Images

As I write this, our new induction range is being installed in the kitchen. It took years to make this change; first, we had to learn about the dangers of cooking with gas and the emissions of particulates and nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide. We have noted that they are bad for the climate and leak methane. But even after I had this all figured out in 2014, when I asked, "Which is greener, a gas or electric stove?", it has taken eight years to make the switch because stoves are an expensive sunk cost and my wife Kelly does the cooking and loves gas. I had to wait until the gas range up and died before I got the chance to change it.

It takes a long time for people to come around, but Kelly sees the Awair air quality monitor showing the rise in VOCs and PM2.5 when she cooks. Others are coming around, too. The high-end appliance store where we bought the induction stove was filled with giant gas ranges that cost tens of thousands of dollars, but the account manager told me that it is the induction ranges that are flying out the door. And of course, like lead and everything else, the industry fights back and the American Gas Association hires Instagram influencers to peddle gas, which was never natural.

Get a Good Hood

Completely useless hood, too small too far away and over an island.
Completely useless hood, too small too far away and over an island.

Andrea Rugg / Getty Images

I know I have lost the argument that kitchens should be closed or in a separate room. I remain convinced that the open kitchen has always been a bad idea—from a thermal, practical, health, and even social point of view. I got laughed at when I wrote that, "in kitchen design, it is all about the role of women in society. You can't look at kitchen design without looking at sexual politics." I appear to be alone in thinking that kitchen islands, archipelagos, and continents should sink under the sea.

But if you can't have a separate kitchen, at least get a good hood. Most are terrible. I have written "The Most Screwed Up, Badly Designed, Inappropriately Used Appliance in Your Home: The Kitchen Exhaust" because nobody properly engineers them to move the right amount of air. They are often too small, too far away, ridiculously shaped, and, worst of all, installed over an island range.

In my hyperventilation about kitchen ventilation, I noted that "all of those beautiful photographs of the big commercial ranges in big open kitchens with exhaust hoods hanging from the ceiling are selling a big lie. Those stoves need a big exhaust fan that is professionally engineered for the size of the stove, and they need conditioned makeup air." In my post, "Worrying About Kitchen Fans Is Exhausting," I quoted engineer Robert Bean who, like me, makes awful kitchen exhaust jokes.

"Since there are no environmental protection regulations governing indoor residential kitchens, your lungs, skin and digestive systems have become the de facto filter for a soufflé of carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, formaldehydes, volatile organic compounds, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, fine and ultra fine particles and other pollutants associated with meal preparation. Toss in the exposed interior design features and what is left behind is an accumulation of contaminants in the form of chemical films, soot and odours on surfaces, similar in affect to what one finds in the homes of smokers."

Many of these come from cooking, not just from burning gas, so even if you have an induction range, you still need a proper hood exhausting to the exterior. Don't even think about recirculating hoods, or what engineer John Straube calls "forehead greasers".

Get a Good Air Quality Monitor

Air quality monitors
CO2Click and Awair.

Lloyd Alter

Treehugger founder Graham Hill always used to say, "What gets measured gets managed," a phrase often attributed to management consultant Peter Drucker. Many deny Drucker said it and claim it isn't true, but it surely is when it comes to air quality. Just like our health departments measure the fecal coliform in water, we have to measure what is in the air if we are going to know what to do. I have used three; first, pre-pandemic, was the Plume Flow, which I stopped using because it doesn't measure carbon dioxide.

During the pandemic, CO2 was considered a good proxy for Covid-19, as professor Shelly Miller explained. The Awair Element measures CO2, PM2.5, and VOCs, as well as humidity and temperature; it played a big part in my wife Kelly accepting an induction range. Our Treehugger testers consider it to be the best smart monitor.

This past summer, as the world started opening up and I faced teaching in a classroom, I wanted to get a portable CO2 monitor to ensure that there was decent air quality in the room. The standard people use for this is an Aranet 4, but a Quebec consultant, Andre Courchesne, offered the CO2.Click which seemed as effective and less expensive. Neither are elegant-looking machines but I admired how Courchesne 3D-prints the case and the stand.

I can't imagine not having the Awair in my home now and refer to it constantly. Here are my readings during a big family dinner on Canadian Thanksgiving; CO2 was high so I opened a window. With a little help from air quality expert Scott and Twitter, I found out why my VOC levels were so high.

Move or Renovate

Go Home 1500

Alas, the biggest problem with residential air quality is the usual design of our homes makes it almost impossible to manage. Fresh air gets in through windows, which is hard to do in winter, or through infiltration and leakage, which is impossible to control. Air, and everything in the air, is moved around through ducts, with the air volume regulated by the thermostat, having nothing to do with air quality. Humidity is kept low in winter because if it gets much higher than 40% water starts running off the windows and mold starts forming on the walls. There is really no true engineering to air management; temperature management is as far as it goes—if you are lucky and they didn't just use some rule-of-thumb heating calculation.

This is why I am such a fan of Passivhaus design:

  • The walls are insulated and the windows are usually triple-glazed, so there is no condensation in winter, even if the humidity is cranked up to between 40% and 60%, which is considered the healthy range.
  • The heating is a separate system from the ventilation and air is not recirculated. It is exhausted from the bathroom and kitchen and run through a heat or energy recovery ventilator. Fresh air is brought in and run through a MERV 13 filter, so there is a constant controlled supply of fresh filtered air.
  • The house is sealed tight and tested so that there is almost no air infiltration or leaking; you know what you are getting because it is all controlled.
  • Not much heating is needed, so it can be anywhere. Juraj Mikurcik has an electric towel bar in the bathroom and that is all that he needs.

People think of Passivhaus as an energy standard, and it is; but like a good plumbing system, it is all about engineering, measuring, and monitoring.

The problem is far worse in apartments, as we noted in "Most Apartment Buildings Have Really Terrible Air Quality." That will be another post.

The famous sink in the hall at the Villa Savoye
The famous sink in the hall at the Villa Savoye.

Lloyd alter

A hundred years ago, we got clean modern design and minimalism and Le Corbusier's sink in the hall, because the architects and the engineers learned about germ theory and wanted everything washable and movable, including your hands the minute you came through the door. They learned from Alvar Aalto and designed light, tubular furniture; Mies van der Rohe wrote that "it facilitates the cleaning of rooms and avoids inaccessible dusty corners. It offers no hiding place for dust and insects and therefore, there is no furniture that meets modern sanitary demands better than tubular-steel furniture." We forgot all this when we got antibiotics.

Fifty years ago, only engineers might have fancy electronic air testing gear. Electricity was dirtier than gas. Fireplaces were charming. Shag rugs were collecting dust and who knows what else. Nobody thought much about air quality because everybody smoked and there wasn't much you could do about it anyway.

Plumber protects the health of the nation

American Standard via Wikipedia

But we know all this now. We relearned our lessons about airborne transmission during the pandemic. We can buy good devices that measure indoor air quality for $200. A hundred years ago they developed codes and rules for water coming in and poop going out, and the plumber really did protect the health of the nation.

Now it is time to rethink our HVAC systems and recognize their importance because, as Dr. David Fisman put it so well, air is the new poop.

View Article Sources
  1. "Information on Lead-Based Paint Rule." U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.