Friday, March 4, 2011

Arizona's Air Quality Conundrum

Any piece of real estate can be the subject of...Image via WikipediaBy James Eberly

On the subject of our atmosphere, there has been substantial dialogue and debate over greenhouse gases, global warming, acid rain, and humanity's responsibility in the generation thereof, and, indeed, these issues are rather contentious in the political sphere.

Where public discourse has neglected to apply appropriate deliberation and examination is in the general quality of our air and the health effects stemming from poor air quality. In addition, there is not enough public awareness of the effective and actable solutions to air quality problems, nor is there enough individual responsibility to enact those solutions.

Poor air quality has a hefty tally of proven adverse health effects. Air pollutants not only exacerbate the symptoms of asthma and trigger aggravated asthmatic episodes, but they can actually contribute to the outset of chronic asthma.

According to chemists at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, air pollutants containing persistent free radicals (PRFs) affect the lungs in similar ways to tobacco smoke and are suspected to contribute to the presence of smoking-related diseases, such as cardiopulmonary disease and lung cancer, in lifetime non-smokers.

Cystic fibrosis patients who are exposed to pollutants stemming from industrial and automotive emissions or improper use and maintenance of HVACS experience a drastic decrease in lung function. Smog has been linked to chronic bronchitis, pneumonia, emphysema, and other lower respiratory illnesses.

Air pollution is also statistically related with higher rates of fatigue, allergies, heart attack, stroke, DNA damage, and premature birth. According to the American Lung Association's "State of the Air" report, 79% of Maricopa county citizens are at high risk for respiratory complications as a result of poor air quality. Moreover, the World Health Organization has concluded that 41,200 people die per year in the United States from causes "attributable to environmental risk factors." As one might presuppose, poor air quality has the worst effects on the demographics least capable to combat the irritants in our air: the elderly, the young, and the chronically ill.

Because of our concept of public space, the quality of our air may appear to be strictly a matter of public policy, something far beyond an individual's control, something that only corporate planning or government regulation could alter. To an extent air quality is a public concern, because most of the pollutants in our air are created by urban, industrial, commercial, or environmental factors, but it is just as much an individual concern.

All of those urban, industrial, and environmental pollutants that plague the atmosphere also enter into homes at alarming rates. Once these pollutants enter into a home, they are typically trapped there by humidity, air pressure flow, HVACs, and building envelope. Then, the chemicals used in daily domestic life compound these outdoor pollutants. The outcome is that the concentration of the pollutants in the average home is actually about two times as dense as the concentration of those same pollutants in the atmosphere. If one considers that the average person spends the bulk of the day indoors, it becomes clear why indoor air quality is rapidly becoming a major issue.

Everyday indoor air pollutants that are considered noxious, toxic, volatile, flammable, carcinogenic, allergenic, antigenic, radioactive, or otherwise hazardous include particulate matter, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), microbial contaminants, Legionella, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulfide, tetrachloroethylene, methane, arsenic, cyanide, smoke, ozone, aerosols, asbestos, radon, and lead.

Indoor air quality is a complicated dilemma without any easy solutions. Poor indoor air quality is often compounded by outdoor air pollution, which creates a paradoxical conundrum where indoor air must be ventilated efficiently for health reasons, but outdoor air is too contaminated to be suitable for indoor intake.

There are, however, several different home improvement measures individuals can enact to reduce the presence and impact of air pollution in their homes. Houseplants are capable of filtering and metabolizing many pollutants, especially VOCs, microbial contaminants, and carbon/oxygen-based gases. Houseplants also help balance oxygen-carbon levels. Many common household products, especially cleaning products, fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides, contain ozone, ammonia, chlorine, arsenic, cyanide, and other harmful chemicals that are highly reactive and can compound with outdoor air pollutants. Reducing or eliminating the use of these products is essential to improving air quality.

Having your home inspected for the presence of toxic, radioactive, and carcinogenic materials such as lead, radon, and asbestos is an important safeguard. Inspection is especially necessary in older dwellings that were built before awareness and regulation of these materials existed. Smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors are necessary tools for measuring air quality and safeguarding against house fires, carbon monoxide poisoning, and low oxygen levels. Regularly ensuring the functionality of heating devices, such as furnaces, boilers, water heaters, stoves, and ovens, will protect against dangerous levels of flammable, volatile, and toxic chemicals such as methane, carbon monoxide, and carbon dioxide. Using dehumidifiers to regulate air humidity will reduce the presence of microbial contaminants.

HVAC design is also crucial. Pairing an HVAC system with a carbon dioxide sensor allows for need-based ventilation, which can help maintain clean air. Air filters are important for filtering some outdoor air pollutants such as particulate matter before they are trapped indoors. Increasingly, HVAC systems are being designed to remain in a positive air-pressure state, which better controls the influx of outdoor air. Positive air-pressure state HVACs are important in urban areas, where outdoor air contains abnormally high levels of hazardous materials and ventilation is still needed.

Considering Maricopa County has repeatedly violated the 1990 Clean Air by failing to meet air quality standards and has recently received the worst possible air quality rating from the American Lung Association, it would be prudent for residents of the Phoenix metropolitan area to consider enhancing their indoor air quality by updating and enhancing their HVAC system.

In Arizona, where the desert climate creates high levels of dust in the air, it is crucial to have a well-working air filtration system to filter particulate matter. Residents of the Phoenix metropolitan area should also consider converting to a positive air-pressure state HVAC system, which will ventilate indoor air only when absolutely necessary and can be programmed to ventilate air at times in the day when outdoor air is least harmful. These precautions, along conscientious, pollution-limiting use of our public air, will help combat some of the air quality problems and the health complications thereof, which we have experienced over the past few decades in the Valley of the Sun.

James Eberly maintains a blog on improving the consumer-service provider paradigm, which can be viewed @

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