“The air at 500 km is so thin that a molecule will travel an average of 30 km before it collides with another molecule.” —Ray Roble, Senior Scientist High Altitude Observatory National Center for Atmospheric Research
“. . . this most excellent canopy, the air . . .”
—Shakespeare, Hamlet, II ii 317
Hail to the air apparent. Though ubiquitous, essential, this planet-protecting blend of gases is notable for being defined by what it is not—a litany of negatives: tasteless, odorless, colorless. A pervasive nonentity. An oxymoron, is our air.
It wafts its way through our language as through our lives. We put on airs, cultivate an air of mystery, disappear into thin air. A braggart is full of hot air. Deliriously happy, we’re walking on air. We air grievances—and opinions.
We enter this world with an inhale that, some doctors theorize, burns all the way down, harsh as a shot of cheap whiskey. Our relationship to this invisible presence brackets our days on Earth: the breath of life, death’s last gasp. Breath is the silent heart of meditation practice, and in archaic times, the words “air” and “breath” were interchangeable, perhaps as they should be.
Still, air—still air—ranks as one of the four elements in traditional cosmologies, associated with spring, the heart, and bright colors. But if air in its static state has classical associations, it is air in motion—dramatic, even catastrophic in its force and unpredictability—that fires the cross-cultural imagination.
In Chinese antiquity, the wind, or feng, was revered as a bird god—and serves as the introduction to feng shui, an ancient practice for ordering the domestic world in reference to the natural. Meanwhile, the ancient Greeks personified the winds by compass directions: Boreas, the bitter north wind, abducted an Athenian princess; Zephyrus, the mild west wind brought the young Psyche to Eros.
This mysterious unseen force suggests an otherworldly explanation. Freud even postulated a connection between human spirituality and the movement of air, citing the Hebrew word ruah, with its multiple connotations of “wind,” “spirit,” and “breath.”
But science breeds contempt. These days, we “condition” our air. Sealed away, we practice “climate control,” presuming mastery over an element once respected as the very breath of the gods. Mother Earth sighs. Ultimately, our well being and that of the air are inexorably linked. Breath—involuntary, unavoidable—keeps us at its mercy.
Yet it’s “an ill wind that bloweth no man to good,” declares the 16th-century proverb. Our dependence raises a gust of humility—a veritable breath of fresh air. NH
The Air Inside: You Are What You Breathe
Our homes are our sanctuary, safe and sealed against the elements. In days gone by, pure breezes blew gently through our open windows, stirring table linens or lace curtains, reminding us of the joys of a clean, clear summer day. Though breezes still blow, pure is no longer an appropriate description. And if the air outside is not as fresh as we remember, the air inside our homes, contrary to what most of us believe, is often worse.
In the largest and most industrialized cities, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, the air within today’s residential and commercial buildings is even more polluted than outdoor air. Since today most people spend approximately 90 percent of their time indoors, more than half of it at home, the risks to health may be greater indoors than out. Garden-variety headaches alone cost approximately $50 billion in lost productivity and medical expenses per year, according to Louise Kosta in her article “Focus on Fragrance and Health,” published in The Human Ecologist magazine, Human Ecology Action League, Inc., Fall 1992. At least ten million Americans have asthma; along with asthma-related deaths, the condition has increased over 30 percent during the last decade. And more than thirty-three million Americans now suffer from sinus problems.
- Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas emitted from soil or rock that you cannot see, smell, or taste. It can seep into your house through cracks in its foundation and walls, construction joints, and drains. The effects of radon poisoning are not immediate, but radon contributes to between 7,000 and 30,000 lung-cancer deaths each year. You can find test kits at most hardware and homebuilder stores. Or for more information on radon, call the radon helpline at (800) 557-2366.
- Molds and mildews build up from too much moisture. To prevent buildup, use exhaust fans vented outdoors in kitchens and bathrooms; vent clothes dryers outside; ventilate attics and crawl spaces; clean humidifiers and refill with fresh water daily or as directed by the manufacturer; and thoroughly clean and dry water-damaged carpet and building materials, or replace them.
- Carbon monoxide may be emitted by your heating system. That’s why it’s wise to keep gas appliances properly adjusted, replace unvented space heaters with vented ones, and have a trained professional annually inspect, clean, and tune up your central heating system, including furnaces, flues, and chimneys. Carbon monoxide detectors are available at most hardware stores.
- Gases from stoves, heaters, fireplaces, and chimneys emit respirable particles that cause eye, nose, and throat irritations, respiratory infections, bronchitis, and lung cancer. Furnish your house with efficient appliances, and clean and check them regularly.
- Organic chemicals are widely used in household products. They may cause impaired lung function and, in young children, increased respiratory infections. Some are even known to cause cancer. Keep your exposure to products that contain methylene chloride—found in paint strippers, adhesive removers, and aerosol spray paints—benzene, often found in paint, and perchloroethylene—used in dry cleaning—to a bare minimum, and avoid purchasing them whenever possible.
- Formaldehyde is found in building materials and many household products. Although it may cause eye, nose, and throat irritations, wheezing and coughing, fatigue, skin rashes, and severe allergic reactions, emissions from formaldehyde decrease as products age. Today, the formaldehyde content of most pressed-wood products is regulated, but ask before you buy, and keep in mind that you can buy wood that is completely free of formaldehyde, though it will usually cost you more.
- Pesticides cause irritation to eyes, nose, and throat, damage to the central nervous system and kidneys, and increase the risk of cancer. Use a natural alternative.
- New carpeting and padding may be hazardous to your health. Before you buy, ask for information on carpet and padding emissions; also ask for low-emitting adhesives if they are needed. Consider leaving the premises during and immediately after carpet installation, and open doors and windows during installation. Dry and/or get rid of wet carpet immediately.
The air within today’s residential and commercial buildings is even more polluted than outdoor air. Why?
Since the 1970s, builders have helped conserve energy by building homes and office buildings as airtight as possible. But we trap in pollutants with heat. Indoor pollution may stem from many sources—combustible fuels such as oil, gas, kerosene, coal, wood, and tobacco products; building and furnishing materials such as carpeting, either wet or new; furniture or cabinetry made of pressed wood, which “outgasses” formaldehyde; household products for cleaning and maintenance, personal care, and hobbies; pesticides; central heating and cooling systems and humidification devices; and outdoor pollutants such as radon. Our senses cannot detect many in-home pollutants—we can neither smell nor see them—and the symptoms they produce are vague. In fact, some symptoms don’t appear for years, making it even more difficult to discover the cause.
So how do we bring a healthy flow of fresh outdoor air inside? By three means: infiltration, natural ventilation, and mechanical ventilation. With infiltration, outdoor air flows into the house through openings, joints, and cracks in walls, floors, and ceilings, plus windows and doors. In natural ventilation, air moves through opened windows and doors. Mechanical ventilation employs devices such as outdoor-vented fans that intermittently remove air from a single room to an air-handling system that uses fans and duct work to continuously remove indoor air and distribute filtered and conditioned outdoor air throughout the house.
Cleaning Up Household Toxins
According to the Texas Department of Health, the top “killer” household products are air fresheners, ammonia, bleach, carpet and upholstery shampoo, drain cleaner, furniture polish, mold and mildew cleaners, oven cleaner, antibacterial cleaners, laundry-room products, and toilet bowl cleaners. These products, depending on the brand, are often toxic in themselves and can make your air toxic. Try replacing all your smelly chemical cleaners with natural ones that encourage harmless air and good health.
But if you throw out all your cleaning products, how will you clean? Your grandmother could probably tell you that you can clean almost anything with baking soda or vinegar. You may find they are more effective than the chemical cleaners in your cupboards. After you throw these out, also consider throwing out your household pesticides: moth repellants, roach killers, ant and fly poisons. They are very toxic and just having them inside contributes to poor indoor air quality. And you do have alternatives. Borax is an effective roach repellant; cedar chips in cotton sachets repel moths; chili powder is good for repelling ants; and soapy water keeps insects off your house plants.
To make a major difference in the quality of your home’s air—you can just open the windows.
Cool Cooling Comfort
Unless you live in a suffocatingly hot climate, you will probably admit that the fresh feel of natural air is far more pleasant than the feel of conditioned air. Often overused, air conditioning is not only a huge energy consumer but also a great polluter. In some climates air conditioning can literally be a lifesaver, but for more temperate zones, there are many natural ways to prevent your house from heating up in the first place and to bring cool breezes in without turning on an appliance.
Simple mechanical devices can do a great deal without polluting or using much energy. If air conditioning isn’t absolutely essential to your comfort, consider one or more ceiling fans as an alternative or supplement. Ceiling fans run on 98 percent less electricity than most air conditioners. You also may install vents, some up high and some down low, to get cross currents of outside air swooping through your rooms with the help of a ceiling fan or two. Even more effective are whole-house fans that range from about $100 to $400 installed. When placed in the attic or central hallway, whole-house fans pull in cool outside air through partially opened windows while their blades draw out warm household air through high wall or attic vents.
Another low-tech device colloquially referred to as the “swamp cooler” is one of the least expensive, most energy-conscious ways to cool. Swamp coolers use evaporation to cool the air by passing it through something wet. A swamp cooler may be as simple as a wet cloth placed over a window. Sophisticated swamp coolers employ wood fiber or paper as the water medium and come complete with a blower for under $100. Swamp coolers are energy efficient, do not expel the ozone-layer destroying chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) that some air conditioners do, and supply fresh-air cooling.
Do Air Cleaners Clean Air?
You don’t have to buy an air filter to make a major difference in the quality of your home’s air—you can do that by just opening the windows. Many air cleaners can be noisy and elevate energy bills, but easier breathing may be well worth it if you suffer from asthma or sinus problems. Here are some basic facts for evaluating filters, and more information on air cleaners is available at www.purenatural.com.
Room air cleaners typically employ filters, electrical attraction, or ozone, and range in price from $60 to $500. A good filter will provide five air changes per hour per room. A very efficient collector with a low air-circulation rate will not be effective, nor will a less efficient collector with a high air circulation.
- HEPA, or High-Efficiency Particulate Arresting filters, capture up to 99.97 percent of air particles of 0.3 microns or larger. A fan pulls air through a foam pre-filter to remove large particles. Air is then forced through the HEPA filter, which removes most other particles. Although they are highly efficient and require little maintenance, these filters use a power fan to push air, and the fan increases energy costs and noise. Because HEPA-type filters are similar to HEPA filters in style but use a more permeable paper, they are less expensive, and less efficient, than HEPA filters.
- ULPA, or Ultra-Low Penetrating Air filters, newcomers to residential air cleaning, remove 99.99 percent of airborne particles as small as 0.1 micron. This type of filter is a favorite in hospitals.
- Electrostatic Precipitators deliver a negative electrical charge to particles that pass through them. The particles are then attracted to a positively charged collector that must be cleaned frequently. Precipitators are said to be 95 to 99 percent efficient and have low energy and filter costs, but their efficiency decreases with use. They also can produce a small amount of ozone.
- Electrostatic Air Cleaners also rely on electric charges to clean the air, and, when clean, are highly efficient. They are cheap and do not produce ozone, but they are not as efficient as precipitators.
- Ozone Generators are not proven effective at air cleaning. While ozone can purify drinking water, it is a toxic gas with no known beneficial health effects. Both Consumer Reports and the Environmental Protection Agency advise against using ozone-type air cleaners.
- HVACs, or Heating, Ventilating, Air Conditioning systems, cannot be installed if your house employs radiators for heat. In-duct air cleaners for existing HVAC systems run from $250 to $800. Keep in mind that these systems can serve as a conduit for pollutant sources from the outdoors, and, if improperly maintained, can act as breeding grounds for molds and bacteria. Every HVAC system contains a filter in the return airstream that must be changed or inspected monthly. Dirt collection in an HVAC system serves as a nutrient to microbial growth. If moisture collects, molds and mildews grow.
Today, 64 percent of American homes have some type of air conditioning, central or room; though far from benign, most are, fortunately, far more environmentally sound than the energy guzzlers of the past. All air conditioners are evaluated in two ways. One is by cooling capacity, which is expressed in “tons”; one ton equals 12,000 British thermal units per hour (BTU/hr) or the amount of heat (BTU) that the unit can remove from the air in one hour. A 12,000-BTU air conditioner will remove 12,000 BTUs of heat from an area every hour.
The second way to evaluate air conditioners is by seasonal energy efficiency ratio, or SEER, for a central unit, and EER for room models. The higher a unit’s SEER, the less power it uses. Department of Energy standards now require a minimum SEER of ten for typical systems. The most efficient units have a rating as high as eighteen. Room units should have an EER of eight or above.
Homeowners’ most common mistake is to install an oversized unit that makes the system more expensive to run and uses more energy. Far better to install a correctly sized unit with a programmable thermostat that lets the house warm up during the day, then cools it down before you get home. If you have a central cooling system, or a forced-air furnace or heat pump, you already have the ductwork for air conditioning. The average price to install a common size (36,000 BTU/hr) system is about $2,800. New ductwork can add considerably to this. As a general rule, an energy-efficient model costs less to run and more to purchase.
Judy Bucher is an award-winning writer and editor whose work has appeared in Redbook, Injection Molding Magazine, Plastics World, and Modern Plastics Encyclopaedia.
Ions for Health
Being near a waterfall or on a mountain peak—invigorating environments where thousands of negative ions occur naturally—can give you an exhilerating “high.” The function of an ionizer is to dispense negative ions, like those found in nature, to revitalize and re-energize you. People who use ionizers say they feel like they’re breathing country air.
While there is no scientific evidence for proof, devotees maintain that negative ions boost the immune system, increase the body’s ability to use the oxygen in air, increase the lungs’ ability to get rid of pollutants, make breathing feel easier, improve sleep, reduce stress, increase alertness, and decrease blood clotting.
If you believe an ionizer can bring serenity to your life, keep in mind that a badly designed one may produce ozone, and with it nitrous oxide; both are toxic and can cause respiratory difficulties and stinging eyes. The accepted level of ozone is 0.1 ppm (parts per million). Be sure to buy your ionizer from a reputable dealer. Ionizers range from about $70 for very small car units to $5,000 for the largest units.
Is Wetter Air Better?
Elevated humidity can help fight respiratory ailments and aid the body’s defenses against viruses and air pollutants. But nothing encourages the growth of mold spores and mildews like humidity. Unless you live in the desert, be careful about introducing a humidifier into your home, particularly if you are allergic to mold spores. A tabletop fountain can be a nice low-tech, low-maintenance way to bring a little moisture into a room.
If you believe a humidifier is right for your home, consider first the size of the area to be covered. For one room, such as a family room or bedroom, a tabletop model should suffice; if several rooms or even the entire house can benefit, you’ll need a console model. If you have forced-air heat, an in-duct humidifier that spreads air throughout the house is a possibility.
Most tabletop humidifiers use about $5 a year in electricity, consoles $13. Steam-mist and warm-mist models that vaporize water by boiling it use about twice that amount; in fact, warm-mist models are reported to “gobble” electricity. Cool-mist and ultrasonic models which, like impeller models, require little energy, can release a white dust that slowly films furniture. Prices range from approximately $25 for impeller models to $170 for console models. You must frequently clean all models according to instructions to deter the growth of microorganisms and kill germs. You must also properly maintain in-duct models to avoid spreading germs and white dust throughout the home.