Anyone who stepped outside this past summer to a glowing orange sunset or hazy gray sunrise can attest that the air quality looks bad—and they’re right. In our case, wildfire smoke from California and Oregon inundated Colorado with tiny particles of ash, dust, and soot, while ozone levels from cars (among other things) have spiked to create those familiar white-sky days.
According to the air quality tracking website IQAir, Denver’s air quality on August 9, 2021, trailed only Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, for the worst air quality among any major city on Earth.
“The air quality has been in the moderate to very unhealthy range for much of the summer,” says Dr. Anthony Gerber, director of research, pulmonary division at National Jewish Health. Poor air quality can affect children in multiple ways, such as causing shortness of breath, coughing, and worsening symptoms of any lung-related diseases such as asthma.
“Children breathe more, relative to their body weight. Also, their lungs are developing, so we do list children in the more sensitive population group.”
Though we can’t control many of the air pollution factors, there are ways to ensure that your family breathes better air, both indoors and out.
Improving Air Quality At Home
While conditioning your air inside does not change the air conditions outside, using an air purifier in the home may offer some relief from the smoke, as well as other known indoor air pollutants like volatile organic compounds, allergens, pet dander, and mold. Gerber says it’s important to note that the amount of smoke getting into your home varies drastically depending on how your house is built, as well as your heating/cooling system.
If you choose a free-standing air purifier, Gerber advises that it needs to be able to circulate and clean the air in the whole room or whole space, at least two or three times an hour. As a helpful guide, most air purifiers identify the size of room they are best for in terms of square feet and the number of times, under normal conditions, it would clean the air in that space. To some extent, it is also a function of the air exchange coming into the house; if a lot of air gets in from the outside, the purifier will have to work harder, if it is a tight house, less. “You can’t get a tiny little filter and expect it to clean a 1,500-square-foot house,” he says. Guidelines and technical specifications should be readily available on the air purifier unit.
Gerber also recommends looking for a purifier that uses a HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filter. As defined by the U.S. Department of Energy, a HEPA filter should remove at least 99.97 percent of airborne particles with a size of 0.3 microns (one-millionth of a meter).
“You need something that will filter out down to a pretty small particle size,” Gerber says. “Otherwise, many of the most toxic particles, which we think are the smallest ones, are still going to get into your house.”
Some purifiers also have a pre-filter that gets out the largest particles before they get to the HEPA filter, thus extending the life of the latter, he explains.
To keep the air purifier running most efficiently, the filters will need to be changed regularly. Each purifier’s instruction manual offers a recommended schedule for filter replacement, under typical conditions, and some have an indicator light to tell you when a filter needs replacing.
Families should also consider the noise level of the air purifier. While the noise output doesn’t reflect the unit’s ability to clean the air, it may affect healthy sleep. If there is a light sleeper in the house, look for an air purifier with a night mode which reduces the unit’s noise and turns off any light from the control display.
Monitoring Outdoor Air Quality
Gerber notes that while outdoor ozone levels may register high, ozone (a naturally occurring and man-made gas that can be harmful to humans) doesn’t accumulate to high levels in the home, but might be a concern when choosing when to play outdoors with your kids. Ozone levels can vary by location in the metro area and throughout the day. Levels are typically higher in the afternoon, so if you are going to the park with your kids and can choose the time, the air will generally be better in the morning.
Several air-quality monitoring sites (see below) at the state and city level can provide real-time information, so parents can make decisions about when and where it’s best to be outside.
“There are common sense strategies that will help you minimize the risk and still allow kids to have that good outdoor exercise time,” says Gerber.
Simple Ways to Clean Indoor Air
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), recommends these simple ways to keep the air inside your home as clean and particulate-free as possible:
- Avoid smoking cigarettes, pipes, and cigars indoors.
- Dust or mop surfaces in the home often to keep settled particles from getting back into the air.
- Minimize the use of gas, propane, or wood-burning stoves and furnaces.
- Refrain from spraying aerosol products such as air freshener.
- House dust mites, pollen, animal dander and other allergy-causing agents can be reduced, although not eliminated, through regular cleaning.
- Reduce frying or broiling food, as the smoke and steam add particles into the air.
- Don’t burn candles or incense.
- Ensure that your vacuum cleaner has a HEPA filter.
Also, the NASA Clean Air Study researched ways to clean the air in space stations, and its results suggested that certain common indoor plants may provide a natural way of removing pathogenic viruses, bacteria, and organic chemicals. Look for spider plants, peace lilies, and bamboo palms, which don’t require a green thumb to keep alive.
Learn More About Your Air Quality
Colorado’s Department of Public Health & Environment reports continuously on air quality.
The City of Denver’s Love My Air program monitors air quality at Denver Public Schools across the city. The network uses cutting-edge air pollution sensor technology to provide real-time data.