If We Are Going to Have Good Indoor Air Quality, We Have to Start Outdoors

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CC BY 2.0. A Don Valley Parkway without cars/ Lloyd Alter

Particulate pollution is killing us, and we can't pretend we can just open a window.

As noted in a previous post, "Indoor air pollution can be five times more polluted than outside air." At the recent Active house Symposium in Toronto, there was much talk about opening windows and letting the fresh air in, which was often hard to hear over the din of the cars and trucks on the nearby Don Valley Parkway.

And indeed, the lovely green valley where the symposium was taking place had Ultra-Fine Particle concentrations of between 16,000 and 20,000 particles per cubic centimetre. Chemical engineer Greg Evans told University of Toronto Engineering News:

“The ultrafine particles are particularly troubling,” says Evans. “Because they are over 1000 times smaller than the width of a human hair, they have a greater ability to penetrate deeper within the lung and travel in the body.”
UFP Pollution Toronto

Greg Evans et al, University of Toronto/CC BY 4.0

He also found that they are all over the city and suburbs, not just near the major highways. People might be living near a bunch of roads full of cars. All those yellow and green and orange splotches are problematic. My own home is in the same stuff as that circle where the conference was.

Also, the news on particulate pollution from ultrafine particles, or particulate matter smaller than 2.5 microns (PM2.5), just keeps getting worse. Damian Carrington recently reported in the Guardian that particles "breathed by mothers can cross into unborn children."

The research is the first study to show the placental barrier can be penetrated by particles breathed in by the mother. It found thousands of the tiny particles per cubic millimetre of tissue in every placenta analysed.

Another study linked to in a scary Guardian post seems to blame air pollution and particulates for almost everything that ails us:

It is estimated that about 500,000 lung cancer deaths and 1.6 million COPD deaths can be attributed to air pollution, but air pollution may also account for 19% of all cardiovascular deaths and 21% of all stroke deaths. Air pollution has been linked to other malignancies, such as bladder cancer and childhood leukemia. Lung development in childhood is stymied with exposure to air pollutants, and poor lung development in children predicts lung impairment in adults. Air pollution is associated with reduced cognitive function and increased risk of dementia. Particulate matter in the air (particulate matter with an aerodynamic diameter < 2.5 μm) is associated with delayed psychomotor development and lower child intelligence. Studies link air pollution with diabetes mellitus prevalence, morbidity, and mortality. Pollution affects the immune system and is associated with allergic rhinitis, allergic sensitization, and autoimmunity. It is also associated with osteoporosis and bone fractures, conjunctivitis, dry eye disease, blepharitis, inflammatory bowel disease, increased intravascular coagulation, and decreased glomerular filtration rate. Atopic and urticarial skin disease, acne, and skin aging are linked to air pollution.

After reading all this, I am really wondering if I actually want to leave my window open. I actually want to seal up my house and buy a giant heat recovery ventilator with a bigger HEPA filter on it. I want the industry to get rid of materials that outgas and surfaces that are fungus food and anything that burns fossil fuels.

Don Valley Parkway without cars

Don Valley Parkway without cars/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

But most importantly, I want to be able to open my windows. I want to live in a house where I can throw them open and breathe fresh air. I want to go into that beautiful green Don Valley and breathe air that isn't full of CO and CO2 and particulates and NO. These diesel, gas and even heavy electric cars are killing us all.

The Active house people are right – it is time to get serious about indoor air quality. But realistically, we can't do that unless we fix the outdoor air quality, too.