Air Quality and Health:
It's Hitting Home.

Air quality and health need to be raised to a higher level of consciousness.  

In 2003 chronic lower respiratory disease was the number four killer in the United States.  The problem isn't getting any better.

Let's start out by looking at those six quarts of stuff we breathe every minute.  

Before the industrial revolution, the atmosphere, better known as air, was about 78% Nitrogen, 21% Oxygen, .93% Argon, .038% Carbon Dioxide, trace amounts of a few other gases and a little water vapor.  

We breathe in several quarts of air a minute and breathe out carbon dioxide.  

Mother nature planned very well.  She made plants breathe in carbon dioxide and breathe out oxygen.  Talk about balance!

We are long past the industrial revolution now and that clean air we used to breathe in now contains a lot of air pollution and our health has suffered.  

There are all kinds of particulate matter.  That's the microscopic particles that usually come from industrial output but also includes the output from motor vehicles and power generation.  

Then we have the dust, pollen, mold, and excretions from the dust mites that inhabit our homes.

Household dust mite Pollen grains from various plants
Photo right: Dust mite...He's our houseguest and he's not house broken. Photo left: Pollen grains from assorted plants.

On top of that, we have an assortment of toxic gases that our lungs weren't designed to process; nitrogen dioxide, ozone, sulfur dioxide and volatile organic compounds (VOCs).  Air pollution and health have become a major concern.

In terms of particle size, it's the really small stuff we have to sweat.  Anything less than 10 micrometers (um) in diameter gets inhaled deep into the lungs.  The larger particles are generally filtered out before they get past the bronchioles.

Think of air quality and health as a seesaw.  On one side, air pollution goes up; health goes down on the other side.

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"Air Quality Means Quality of Life"

The banner at the government web site on air quality reads "Quality of Air Means Quality of Life". Wow, what a great slogan, wish I had thought of it. 

To see what the real- time national outlook for air quality looks like right now, just click on Air Now.

The six ranges of the government’s air quality index are shown below.  It would be interesting to see a study on national air pollution and health trends across the country, especially respiratory health.

The numerical ranges of air quality

How Important is Air Quality to Health?

The World Health Organization estimates that air pollution causes about 3 million premature deaths worldwide.

CDC's National Center for Health Statistics reports that in 2003 there were 126,382 deaths in the U.S. from chronic lower respiratory disease.  By 2005 it had risen to 130,933, still in fourth place. 

Touch Briefings, an organization that provides in-depth reports on the health and pharmaceutical industries, among others, is coming out with a report that will say fatalities from lung disease is now the 3rd highest killer, accounting for 1 in 7 deaths. 

The report will also say that more than 35 million Americans are living with chronic lung diseases. 

To see just how air pollution and health are related and the effects on our lungs, navigate to Respiratory System.

For our purposes, air pollution is the human introduction of contaminants into the atmosphere. 

Nature does her share of polluting the air via volcanoes, forest fires, lightning, and dust storms but those are all natural and have been going on since the earth was born.

Photo below: Wildfire on Angel Island with smoke billowing over Golden Gate bridge

Mt. St. Helens in eruption, 1980 Wildfire on Angel Island in San Francisco Bay

These are called primary pollutants since they are directly
released as the result of some process; i.e., the volcano.
Photo right:  Mt. St. Helens eruption in 1980; it wasn't her first time! 

We humans also release primary pollutants from our processes.

Think about the carbon monoxide that goes into the air from driving our car.  Come to think of it, Henry Ford is probably responsible for the start of our decline in air quality and the rise in respiratory problems.

Photo right:  An all-too-common sight and hazardous to our health.

What about the sulfur dioxide that comes out of all those factory smokestacks in China, India and Russia?  Yes, Chinese air pollution and health in the U.S. are related.  When it comes to air pollution and health, the issues are no longer local; they're global. 

We can't forget about the smoke that is spewed into the air every time someone lights up a cancer stick.  We will cover that one in great detail in our cancer coverage.

Photo below:  Sulfur dioxide from New Mexico power plant before the addition of scrubbers.

smokestack emissions

Then there's something called secondary pollution caused by the interaction of primary pollutants with other substances. 

We can see examples of secondary air pollution in the smog over major population centers like Beijing and Los Angeles.

Photo below:  Smog over Los Angeles taken from Hollywood Hills; Griffith's Observatory on the left

Smog over Los Angeles from Hollywood Hills

Another is acid rain formed when sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide interact with moisture in the air to form an acidic precipitation.  It can create "dead" lakes, kill plant life and corrode buildings and infrastructure.

Inside Worse than Outside?

Because our modern homes are so tightly sealed and wrapped in Tyvek, it's not unusual for the air trapped inside the home to be much more polluted that the outside air.  Yes, our air quality and health begins in the home.

Changed your furnace filter lately?  If you have room air filters in your home, when did you last clean their filters?  When you do clean or change them, take note of all the crud on the filter.  If it wasn't on the filter, it would likely be in your lungs.

Photo: Magnification of mold spores

Mold spores

Common particles of household air pollutants are dust, pollens, animal dander, mite allergens, spores, bacteria, viruses, flaked off skin and hair.

Animal dander is a big allergen in the home.  If you have dogs and want to keep the dander down to a dull roar take a look at one of the many high quality air filters on the market. It could make a real difference, especially to an allergy sufferer.

Air quality and health starts inside our front door.

Photo:  Influenza virus at 100,000 times magnification

100,000 times magnification of influenza virus

There are numerous polluting gases in our homes that include formaldehyde, aerosol gases from cleansers, fumes from bleach, furniture polish, and toilet bowl cleaners.

On top of that are the combustion gases such as tobacco smoke, cooking fumes, and carbon monoxide from unvented or improperly vented heaters.  Even something as common as dry cleaned clothes bring air borne toxins into the home; and that's just for starters. 

It doesn't take much. Clean up indoor air pollution and air quality and health improvements will follow.

First off, if there are smokers in the house; out they go.  The smoking area is outside.  Their air pollution and health problems shouldn't be our problem. 

Have good working vent hoods over the stove and use them when cooking.

Open a few windows to ventilate the house when using strong cleansers.  If you bring home dry cleaning in those plastic bags, remove the bags and let the clothes air out before you bring them into your closet. 

Keep the house clean; no dust bunnies on the hardwoods, vacuum carpets frequently and dust.
Start leaving shoes in a shoe rack outside house, maybe on a porch or entryway. 

The Japanese have it right.  It's unbelievable what comes into our homes on the soles of shoes.  Air quality in the home is greatly affected by what we track into the house.

Never use kerosene space heaters indoors; never, ever burn charcoal in the house, take care never to run gasoline mowers or generators outside where the fumes could get sucked into the ac system through the heat pumps or other air intake equipment.  Not only will this ruin your air quailty, it could take your life.

Whenever painting, stripping furniture, sanding, wallpapering or anything similar, open the house to ventilate it and wear a paper mask or respirator, depending on the type of fumes or particulates being released.

Then consider air filtration systems.  At a minimum, use portable HEPA filters and at the other end of the spectrum, consider installing a "whole house" filtration system.  These attach right into the ductwork at the furnace unit. 

Also a whole house humidifier is good for respiratory health, especially in the cold, dry air of winter.

Air quality in the home is so important that a comparison of the various technologies available is presented below.

Home Air Filters and Air Quality and Health
Here come the Choices!

We will look at six approaches to cleaning up the air in a home, from cheapest and least effective to most expensive and most efficient.  The level of air quality and health of every family member can be affected by the choices made in air filter systems.

Ionic Room Air Filters

At the bottom of the scale are the ionic room air filters.  These are air cleaners, not air purifiers.  They emit a stream of negative ions that combine with the dust in the air, causing it to fall to the floor, furniture, or whatever.

They don't kill or filter out bacteria, spores, or viruses; in fact, they don't filter anything.

The downside is that those negative ions are ozone which is a top health hazard according to the EPA. It is probable that ionic, ozone generating air filters actually have a negative effect on both air quality and health.

They are low cost and can be purchased for around $70 up to $200 or more. 

Bottom line; they don't do a very good job of cleaning the air and can cause respiratory problems.  Our money is better spent on higher technology air filters.

One-inch Throw-away Filters

Next come the one-inch, throw-away filters in most HVAC (heating, ventilation, air conditioning) systems.  These are those fiberglass or other "media" filters that side into that one-inch slot in your furnace system.

Photo:  Typical one-ince throw-away furnace filter. 

Typical one-inch throw-away air filter

Since the HVAC system was installed when the home was built, the only choice is to stick with the woven fiberglass, non-electrostatic filter or upgrade to one of the more efficient pleated varieties. 

One example of an excellent pleated filter is the Filtrete brand from 3M found in most grocery stores. 

There is about a three times cost difference between the fiberglass and white pleated filters but it's worth the extra cost.  The problem with the throw away filters is that most people forget to change them.

HEPA Room Air Filters

Third from the bottom are the HEPA room air filters.  HEPA stands for High Efficiency Particulate Air filter and in order to qualify as a HEPA filter, it must be capable of removing 99.97% of all particles .3 microns or larger in diameter. 

HEPA filters work by pulling air through a filter mat of randomly arranged fibers. 

The particles are removed by either impacting a strand of fiber and embedding in it; passing so close to a fiber that it is attracted to the fiber and adheres to it; or a small particle collides with another gas particle, is slowed down and removed by impaction or adhesion. 

HEPA filters are excellent and a good buy for the money and they have very beneficial effects on both air quality and health. 

A typical HEPA room air filter is between $200 and $300.  Watch out for products advertised as HEPA type air filters; they are not the same as true HEPA and are inferior purifiers.

The unit pictured above is the Honeywell HEPAClean Germ Fighting Air Purifier, available from by clicking the product image.  It sells for around $230.

Whole-House five-inch Media Filters

Next up is the whole house 5" media filter.  Basically this is one-inch media filter times 5.  It takes the idea of the one-inch filter that slides into that one-inch slot in the furnace and folds it over several times to increase the filtration surface.

Photo:  Representative five-inch media filter for whole house system.

Five-inch media filter for whole house

They are mounted into a frame that installs in the duct work of the HVAC system where the return airflow enters the unit. 

They are high efficiency, capable of capturing particles of .1 micron in diameter; no electrical hookups needed and thus no electrostatic charge is generated but they can reduce the pressure of the air flow due to the thickness of the filter. 

They can be purchased for about $250 and replacement filters are about $30.

Whole-House Electronic Filters

Next to the top is the Whole house electronic filter.  These are installed directly into the homes HVAC system, usually in the ductwork where the return flow enters the blower chamber.

Photo:  Whole house electronic air filtration system.

Whole House Electronic Air Purifier

An electronic air cleaner traps and filters up to 98% of airborne particles passing through the system and redistributes the cleaner air to the supply outlets.

They work by placing a charge on airborne particles and then collecting them like a magnet.  The cells are washed in the dishwasher as needed. 

The "as needed" is the problem with most homeowners.  Typically they are not cleaned often enough and when the cells are covered with debris, incoming particles are not trapped. 

Most units are equipped with an indicator that tells when it needs to be cleaned. Most employ three stages of filtration that removes both microscopic particles like dust and smoke in addition to larger contaminants like mold spores and pet dander.  Prices can range from $435 upwards to $700+.

Whole-House Multi-Technology Filters

If you want the ultimate in air quality at home, this is the one that can have the greatest impact.

There appears to be a shoving match going on between Honeywell and American Standard for the king of the hill.  American Standard features their AccuClean system while Honeywell touts its F300 as a competitor. 

In my humble opinion, there is no competition.  The Honeywell system is a pure electrostatic system while the American Standard system combines all the technologies discussed above into their one system.

Regarding price, the Honeywell is about half the price of the AccuClean but we get what we pay for. The AccuClean has twice the warranty period but requires a bit more frequent cleaning to keep it operating at peak efficiency.

Photo:  AccuClean system from American Standard.

AccuClean Whole House air filter from American Standard

I just had the AccuClean installed in my home because it captures an unprecedented 99.98 of all allergens.  It includes reusable collection cells that capture particles down to .1 micron in diameter and can be easily cleaned with a vacuum cleaner.  Judging by the reduced amount of dust accumulating in the house, the air quality has noticeably improved.

There is a pre-filter that traps larger airborne particles and a field charger that electrostatically charges airborne contaminants and attracts them to an oppositely charged collection cell.

Its ozone emission is almost nil and is well below the FDA limits for medical devices.  It is 8 times more effective than the best HEPA room appliance, 100 times more effective than the one-inch throw-away media filters, and twice as effective as the whole house electronic filter systems. 

The literature on the Honeywell unit was very silent on the ozone question.  If you have read other parts of this site, you will know that according to the EPA, ozone is a health hazard and they advise against having anything in the house that emits ozone. 

You can click on Respiratory System to find out why.

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