Tag Archives for " air pollution "

Cancer may be a case of nature AND nuture: Why it’s time to pay attention to Inflammogens

Cancer may be a case of nature AND nuture: Why it’s time to pay attention to Inflammogens

The New Yorker article “All the Carcinogens We Cannot See” is quite eye-opening.  You’ve probably known people who lived a “bad” life, drinking or smoking or doing drugs, to a ripe old age, and then also a number of “innocent” young victims of cancer.  What’s the rhyme or reason of evading cancer or acquiring it?   This is the question that thousands of scientists engage every day as they test chemicals on bacteria or animals.  In the 1970’s, biochemist Bruce Ames was able to measure that many mutagens are carcinogens: if a chemical or toxin causes a mutation in bacteria, then it’s likely to also be a carcinogen.  Thus, the Ames test for mutagens remains the standard lab technique for screening substances that may cause cancer.  However, there are many chemicals that cause cancer but are not obviously mutagenic, such as diethylstilbestrol (DES), which increases the risk of vaginal, cervical, and breast cancer.  Also, it has been discovered that with or without exposure to mutagens, most people have a small number of mutated genes.  What is the “trigger” that begins cancer growth?

A well-known example is cigarette smoke.  It contains more than 60 mutagens, which are by extension carcinogens. Surprisingly, however, in a 2023 study that examined the characteristic fingerprints of DNA damage caused by cigarette smoke in human lung cancers, ninety-two per cent had the mutations associated with the DNA-damaging substances in smoke. But about eight per cent lacked this kind of mutagenic damage, and clear mechanisms of cancer in between 8-10 percent of smokers is lacking, causing scientists to think that there are missing cancer-causing agents.

Other studies have confirmed that a second agent is necessary to “activate” the mutations into cancerous tumors.  In one study, DMBA, a cancer-linked chemical that was found in coal tar, only caused cancer in a small percentage of the mice that were exposed to it.  However, after adding an inflammatory oil after exposure to DMBA, more than half of the mice developed malignant tumors.  In another study, mice with a powerful cancer-causing gene only developed cancer when they were also plagued with poorly healing wounds, causing chronic inflammation.  It was inflammation that triggered tumors. 

What does this tell us (other than animals do a lot of our dirty work)?  It’s not mutagens alone that cause cancer:  in many cases, malignancies are only activated when another environmental toxin causes chronic irritation that catapults them out of normalcy. “The mutant cells just lie there,” according to Allan Balmain, a cancer geneticist at the University of California, San Francisco.. “It’s the inflammation that awakens them.”

Unfortunately, there are a lot of sources of inflammation.  According to the Cleveland Clinic, the some of the most common reasons for chronic inflammation in the body are autoimmune diseases, exposure to toxins, and untreated acute inflammation, as from an infection or injury.  Then there are lifestyle factors such as drinking alcohol in excess, obesity, chronic stress and smoking. 

Air pollution also featured prominently in The New Yorker article, and it’s a frequent topic in the news today in expected areas (cities and industrial zones) and unexpected areas (wildfires in the wilderness).  In fact, British epidemiologists Richard Doll and Austin Bradford Hill, who are celebrated for determining the primary cause of lung cancer–smoking–also correlated the disease to proximity to major roadways, gasworks, industrial plants, and coal fires, and thus, by extension, exposure to high levels of air pollution.  Since then, it’s been discovered that when lung cancer occurs in people who have never smoked, the malignant cells often carry a mutation in a gene known as EGFR.  Using data from the U.K., South Korea, and Taiwan, researchers found that in each of the three countries, tthe higher the level of air pollution, the higher the incidence of EGFR-mutated lung cancer. This confirms a link between air pollution and nonsmoking-related lung cancer by mutation.  But there is something else in the air pollution besides mutagens, and it is inflammogens.  Again using all mice that were genetically primed to have EGFR mutations, mice who received larger doses of a liquid simulating air pollution (PM2.5) in their lungs, had more tumors.  The PM2.5-treated mice were full of inflammatory cells.  It seems to be the combination of mutation AND inflammation that caused the mutation to develop into cancer.  Looking more closely at the inflammation, macrophages (large cells that eat foreign particles) promoted an immune response by secreting interleukin-1 beta, a potent inflammatory signal,. If the interleukin-1 beta was blocked with an antibody, the effect of air-pollution exposure dissipated.  Accordingly,  immune-deficient mice did not have inflammation and defeated the effects of air pollution.

Whew, that’s a lot of science.  What we can take away is that inflammation could be the invisible criminal accomplice in many cancer cases, as well as in other diseases.  There’s been a big focus on knowing your genetics, and firms like The DNA Company recognize that purposefully changing your lifestyle with better food, exercise, less stress and sometimes specific supplements can mitigate the effects of DNA deficiencies by defeating the accomplice, inflammation.  In this spirit, we hope that whether you get your DNA tested or not, you are aware of the air quality in and outside your home, and do your best to avoid inflammation by ascribing to a healthy lifestyle and less stress.  These include cleaning often with non-toxic cleaners like TotalClean, changing your HVAC filters regularly, using masks and HEPA filters where necessary, and using bi-polar devices  like the Germ Defender, Upgraded Air Angel Mobile or Whole Home Polar Ionizer that can also help purify the air of VOCs and particulates.  (For more information about your immune system at a molecular level and specific ways to build it up, check out our article here).  The answer to disease, like the cause, is two-fold: take the physical steps you can avoid toxins and inflammation, and sort out the mental toxins (stresses) that cause inflammation too.   At HypoAir, we wish you a healthy home and year!

Photo by Al Elmes on Unsplash

Summer Cooling: What are our options?

Summer Cooling: What are our options?

Many places in the US and around the world have broken temperature records this June.  Whether you’re in Minnesota or south Texas, it can be tough to keep your home cool during summer while maintaining a decent air quality.  We’ll go over some of the most popular ways of cooling your home and maybe some you haven’t thought of.  

If you’re not familiar with the different types of air conditioners and how they work, check out this article.  Note that newer air conditioners are also often “heat pumps” that can reverse the flow of refrigerant to provide heating in the winter.   

Central Air:  About 66% of homes in the US have central air conditioning, but this is not spread out evenly over the country.  As one would expect, central A/C is more prevalent in the south (37%), west (22%), and midwest (21%), versus the northeast (17%), and newer homes are more likely to have it.  (How Much Value Does Central Air Add to Your Home?) The best thing about central air conditioning is its distribution system, which allows multiple rooms to receive cooling and filtration from one unit.  With any air conditioning, it’s very important to do the following things:

  • Keep your home closed (a sealed system) so that warm, moist air is not introduced.  Letting in humid air from the outside will quickly increase humidity inside, because air at a lower temperature cannot hold as much moisture as warmer air, and humidity climbs.  This applies to windows, doors, and any significant leaks (like the door to an unconditioned attic or crawlspace).   

  • Change the filter on your unit regularly!   We can’t emphasize this enough: a dirty filter not only puts extra stress on the machinery like fans and compressors, but it increases cooling costs, and when the filter gets dirty enough, air will start to leak around the filter and get your evaporator coil dirty, providing food for mold.  Using the highest MERV possible for your unit will help keep the system clean and your air clean as well.  You can check out our article here to find out how to get more filtration out of your current AC system. 

  • For extra filtration, you can cut filter material to fit your vents, just don’t forget to clean or change these regularly, too. 

  • Get your unit serviced regularly.  Here are some things that the HVAC tech will do for you during a service visit:  inspect the inside coils, clean the outside coils and straighten fins if necessary, check the refrigerant levels and add refrigerant if necessary, and test the thermostat.  An HVAC system is a big investment (average $7000), so you’ll want to take care of it!  

  • Make sure your insulation is up-to-par: check air ducts to make sure they are not crimped and are fully insulated, and make sure there are no “bare spots” in the home’s conditioned-space envelope (ceiling or roof).  You’ve got to keep that cool air where it belongs!

Mini-Splits have most of the same parts as a central system, but they don’t have ducts to distribute cool air.  Instead, you could have one outdoor unit combined with up to eight indoor units, with the outdoor unit distributing refrigerant, not air.  In this way, you’ll have eight separate fans and filters inside, but these are smaller.  Mini-splits also have filters, so you’ll want to clean or change these on a regular basis.  One disadvantage with mini-splits is that the air filters tend to be similar to window air conditioners, which are cleanable, but they don’t provide high filtration, just large dust capture.  You will also want to get your units serviced regularly by an HVAC technician.  To get additional dust filtration, try adding standalone HEPA filters in the rooms that seem to get the most dust. 

Window Air Conditioners have come a long way in efficiency and looks!  They are one of the quickest installations, too: from buying one in your local home improvement store to having cool air in your space, could take as little as 1 hour.  Window air conditioners are a sort of “plug and play” cooling solution, but they also require regular maintenance of cleaning the filter.  Because the filter is equivalent to a very low MERV, like mini-splits, you’ll want to add a standalone HEPA filter to reduce pollen and dust.  In addition, if your window unit is more than several years old, it would benefit from a deep cleaning (see our article for tips on how to do that).   Some window air conditioners also have a feature that mini-splits and basic central systems don’t: a fresh air vent.  When this vent is open, you can get a small stream of fresh air from the outside, to dilute stale indoor air.  The only problem is that this air is usually not filtered or conditioned:  it’s the same as “cracking the window” without a screen.  To find this feature and operate it correctly, sometimes you’ll need to refer to the owner’s manual.   New window units with “inverter” type motors can be extremely efficient and this “saddle” style unit by Soleus even gives you your window view back, because it hangs below the window on each side.  It also has a dehumidifier setting to lower the humidity in your space. 

Portable Air Conditioners have become popular because like the name suggests, they are the most portable.  They can cool spaces without a window, as long as you have a place nearby to send the heat through the exhaust duct (through a sliding door with an adapter kit, for example).  You will also need a drain to collect condensate, or you will need to empty the reservoir every so often.  Portable air conditioners have the minimal filters similar to window air conditioners and mini-splits, so they are not able to filter smaller particulates.  It’s really important to clean these filters on a regular basis to keep your air conditioner working well!  Another downside to portable air conditioners is that they are less efficient than window air conditioners, and they have bulky hoses that aren’t the most attractive.  

Fans are the most common cooling systems we have, and many are cheap, at less than $50.  Fans cause evaporative cooling, where the circulated air carries heat away from our bodies in the form of water vapor.  Fans work well to cool us down if there is some humidity in the air.  (See our article about the detrimental effect of fans in extreme dry heat.)  You can use a combination of ceiling fans and portable fans to move air from cooler to warmer areas of your home.  Dreo Air Circulators are very powerful, efficient, and quiet because of the fan design, and because they use brushless DC motors that have a large range of speed with low energy consumption.  Since most fans don’t have filters, you can add standalone HEPA filters to cut down on dust, or add cloth filters to your tower fans. Filters for box fans (20x20”) are mainly the replaceable type, not cleanable, but $45 for a 4-pack of MERV-13 filters could help your space stay a lot less dusty.

Opening the windows is an option if you live outside of polluted urban areas, wildfire smoke, or excessive heat and humidity.  In these cases, it’s best to leave the windows closed and curtains drawn to preserve coolness as long as possible in the day.  If inside temperatures start to equalize with outdoors, however, you can use regular window screens in pristine areas, and Window Ventilation Filters in more polluted areas.  Although the filters restrict airflow slightly, they provide a good buffer against dust and pollen.  Here again, standalone HEPA filters will also help reduce dust in your home. 

Evaporative coolers, also known as Swamp Coolers, began to be popular in the 1920’s and 30’s when electricity was available, but residential air conditioning was not affordable/accessible. (Window air conditioners were invented in 1931 and central air conditioning was offered in 1931 but many Americans could not purchase them due to the Depression).   Swamp coolers use a fan to blow air over a wet membrane, which, if not cleaned regularly, begins to grow algae and smell like a swamp!  This older type of membrane is definitely not something we would recommend for air quality, but newer models like those made by Big Ass Fans uses a proprietary resin coating on the media that resists the growth of algae and mold to keep your airflow clean and people healthy.  Following the cleaning and maintenance guidelines are very important, too.  Another downside of this type of cooling is the massive airflow that could kick up a lot of dust.  However, if you have a large outdoor or unconditioned space and adding humidity into the air is not a problem, then an evaporative cooler could help you stay cool.  It would even help to cool a porch, from which you can open up air to your home to take in cooler air.

Heat Pump Water Heaters can actually cool your space.  It sounds counterintuitive–til you consider what this machine is actually doing.  Instead of creating heat by an electric coil or gas furnace, this type of water heater pulls heat from the surrounding air–in effect making the room in which it’s installed, cooler!  If you have the water heater installed in the garage or another unconditioned space, you can still reap the benefits by using ducts to bring warm air from your house to the heat pump, and cool air from the heat pump back to your house.  Heat pump water heaters do cost more than the basic electric or gas varieties, but according to the Department of Energy, they can be two to three times more efficient than a regular electric water heater.  However, when you consider you’re getting free cooling during the summer, you can deduct this cost from your cooling bill.  Another consideration is the size of room where it is installed.  It must be installed in a room at least 12’x12’, or have ducting to access larger areas, so it can pull the heat it needs from the ambient air.   If it’s time to replace your water heater, check with your plumber to see if a heat pump water heater would work for you!

There are many ways to move cool air from the basement into your home, but consider the quality of basement air before you make this move.  If it’s musty or moldy smelling, you’ll definitely want to get rid of that mold before trying to move that air upstairs.  For this reason, we can’t recommend circulating basement air in the rest of your home.

Whichever way you decide to cool your home, make sure that air quality doesn’t suffer.  Our Germ Defenders, Mobile Air Angels and Whole Home Ionizers sanitize air using bipolar ionization, killing microbes and agglomerating dust and pollen so it’s easy to filter or clean.   Extreme heat tends to lead to increased air pollution, so be conscious of air quality when you open the windows, or even when they are closed and outdoor air seeps in (as it always does except in the tightest of homes).   Check out our article to find out how to ride out a heat/air pollution wave safely!

Photo by Glen Carrie on Unsplash

7 Ways Air Quality Impacts Our Skin Health

7 Ways Air Quality Impacts Our Skin Health

Pollution is not only harmful to internal organs: it can also damage the body's surface. Here is the connection between air quality and skin health.

While we often think of air pollution as affecting our respiratory system, its effects go beyond our lungs. It can also be detrimental to other organs.  The skin is the largest organ in our body and serves as a protective barrier against external factors such as pollution, UV radiation, and other environmental stressors. However, when exposed to poor air, the body's ability to protect itself can be compromised, leading to many problems. From dryness and premature aging to acne and eczema — air quality impacts skin health in a big way.  Below, we will analyze the seven most common ways air quality impacts skin health.

1. Dryness: making the skin dry, flaky, and itchy

Poor air quality can have a significant impact on the skin's natural oil, leading to dryness, flakiness, and itchiness. Particulate matter such as PM2.5, can penetrate the layers of the epidermis, causing oxidative stress and inflammation that disrupts natural oil production. Indoor pollutants, like smoke and volatile organic compounds for example, can also contribute to skin dryness and other issues.

It is essential to take protective measures against the detrimental effects of poor air quality on the skin's natural oils. This includes using a gentle cleanser, moisturizing regularly, avoiding heavily polluted areas, and using a humidifier when necessary to add moisture back into the air, so that relative humidity stays between 40-60%.

2. Premature aging: the destruction of collagen and elastin

Exposure to these same pollutants can break down collagen and elastin, proteins that give the epidermis its firmness. When these compounds are destroyed, skin can become saggy, loose, and more prone to wrinkles. Moreover, exposure to ultraviolet radiation, especially in polluted areas, only exacerbates this process.

To safeguard yourself from contaminants and UV rays, you should utilize protective clothing, apply sunscreen, and stay away from places with high levels of air pollution for extended periods.

3. Acne: clogging pores and causing inflammation

Pollution affects the appearance of our skin on the surface and changes it underneath. Inflammatory acne, characterized by red, swollen pimples, is particularly sensitive to air quality. Environmental contaminants, such as tobacco smoke, clog pores and irritate, leading to inflammation and blemishes.

Keeping up with a consistent skincare regimen that involves cleansing, exfoliating, and moisturizing is crucial in countering the harmful impacts of air pollution on the skin.

4. Pigmentation: affecting melanin production

Harmful substances from polluted air can penetrate the skin and stimulate melanin production, the pigment that gives skin its color. Increased melanin can lead to dark spots and blemishes on the body. These pigmentation problems can be more pronounced on skin areas that are frequently exposed, such as the face and hands.

Ultraviolet radiation can contribute to pigmentation issues, the intensity of which decreases depending on air quality.  It can lead to a harmful and uneven tan.

5. Eczema: irritating and exacerbating diseases

Eczema, a chronic inflammatory skin condition, can be particularly sensitive to environmental factors such as air quality. Pollution not only triggers flare-ups but can also worsen existing inflammatory symptoms.

Indoor pollutants such as dust and pet dander can also contribute to eczema flare-ups. The presence of these harmful substances can irritate the skin and prompt the body's immune system to react, resulting in the manifestation of disease symptoms.

To minimize your exposure to eczema, avoid areas with polluted air and wear protective clothing. In cases where disease flare-ups persist, medical treatment may be necessary. A dermatologist may recommend topical creams and ointments to reduce inflammation and soothe irritated skin, as well as oral medications in severe cases.

6. Rosacea: causing skin redness, flushing, and inflammation

Rosacea is also a chronic inflammatory skin condition characterized by redness, visible blood vessels, and small, pus-filled bumps on the face. Although the exact causes of disease are not yet fully understood, environmental factors such as air pollution can trigger its exacerbation.

Exposure to pollutants, along with UV radiation, can cause skin inflammation. It underscores the importance of protecting the skin from both contaminants and UV radiation during condition treatment.

7. Sensitivity: depriving the skin of its natural protective barrier

Air quality can also affect skin sensitivity, especially in people with pre-existing conditions. Exposure to pollutants and irritants can cause inflammation and damage the skin barrier, leading to increased skin sensitivity and the development of new types.

Then again, the composition of the air, such as nitrogen dioxide or particulate matter, can react with UV radiation to produce free radicals that can damage the skin, leading to the development of sensitivity.

Final remarks

Air quality can have a significant impact on the skin, resulting in various problems such as dryness, premature aging, acne, pigmentation, eczema, rosacea, and skin sensitivity. Such habits as smoking, environmental stressors, and UV exposure can exacerbate these issues.

As a countermeasure to the harmful effects of air quality, red light therapy can be a powerful tool since it is effective in treating and preventing several skin disorders, including acne, rosacea, and premature aging. According to the Heliotherapy Institute, this procedure can be more effective, cheaper, and safer than invasive methods.  You can check with a dermatologist to see if they offer powerful in-office red light therapy.

Fortunately, we can do something to protect our skin from harmful irritants in the air. Wearing protective clothing, using air filters, keeping your home at optimal humidity (40-60% relative humidity) and avoiding heavily polluted areas can help keep your skin healthy and vibrant.

Article by Benjamin Allemon

The Truths about Winter Air

The Truths about Winter Air

In the southeast US, I really enjoy the coolness of fall and winter after a long hot summer.  Winter air feels fresh and clean, but why is that?  And is it always fresh and clean?  What about humidity? What about static electricity?

There are so many reasons that winter smells are different!

Our sense of smell relies on several things: odor molecules, and our noses’ smelling equipment.  

  • Molecules within air, including odor molecules, move more slowly in colder weather, so we are less likely to receive good or bad odor molecules. (wonderopolis.org
  • Volatile Organic Compound (VOC) emissions slow down at colder temps.  Many VOCs (like terpenes) have strong smells, but less so with lower temperatures.
  • Humid air is generally better at trapping and delivering odorants through the atmosphere, and better at depositing those particles to the associated olfactory receptors. Winter air is drier and therefore delivers odors less efficiently. (seeker.com)
  • We perceive less smells in cold air because the receptors and vessels within our noses are constricted. This means two things: they move more deeply into our nasal passages, and fewer fragrant molecules can travel through them.
  • There is a nerve in the human body that gets stimulated when breathing in cold air called the trigeminal nerve. This nerve is responsible for the tingly sensations caused by spicy food and mint. This could be a reason as to why the smell of cold air is associated with “fresh” and “clean”. (tonichealth.co)

What about air pollution in the winter?

Surprisingly, air pollution can be worse during the winter than the summer!  This happens when something called an “inversion” forms.  There are several different types of inversions (which are well-explained in this video from the University of Illinois Extension), but they all involve a warmer layer of air above a cooler layer of air, restricting air movement and causing pollutants to be trapped near the earth’s surface.  For example, a city located in a valley and close to a mountain is more liable to experience temperature inversion than other cities. The cold air is denser and heavier; therefore it often slides down the mountain slope and ends up in a valley, leaving the warmer air above.  (airlief.com)  Inversions can last from several hours to several days.  

In addition to inversions, the burning of fossil fuel increases during the winter.  Industrial sources stay roughly the same throughout the year, but household heating and emissions from the vehicles are getting higher during the colder days of the winter.  In lower income countries, where it’s normal to burn garbage and coal for heating, the levels of PM2.5, carbon monoxide and other toxins increase significantly. (airlief.com)

“Stubble burning” is a practice in India during April-May and October-November each year, where farmers set their fields ablaze after harvest to clear the ground for the next crop.  It produces horrible air pollution in Delhi and other cities.  Unfortunately, lack of education on the damage to soil by burning and some profitable alternatives for the stubble cause farmers to continue the practice, despite the pollution.  (sciencedirect.com) Surprisingly, stubble burning is tolerated and even regulated in some countries like Australia and Canada (wikipedia).

(Lack of) Humidity in winter air causes dehydration

Cold air can hold less water vapor, which is the cause of lower relative humidity of winter air.  This drier air can literally suck the moisture out of your body in a myriad of ways. (performancehealthcenter.com)

  1. In cold weather, the body’s thirst response is diminished (by up to 40%) even when dehydrated. (study) This happens because our blood vessels constrict when we’re cold to prevent blood from flowing freely to the extremities. This enables the body to conserve heat by drawing more blood to its core.  Maintaining the body’s core temperature becomes more important than fluid balance, but because of this, the body is fooled into thinking it’s properly hydrated. Thus, in cold weather, we are less likely to drink water due to diminished thirst.  
  2. Our kidneys aren’t signaled by regulating hormones like they normally are to conserve water and therefore urine production increases, a condition called cold-induced urine diuresis.
  3. Nasal passages can dry out even though they feel like they are being flooded with moisture because of condensation (cold air hits warm nostril and water vapor instantly condenses!)
  4. We don’t even realize we are sweating because sweat dries quickly in cool, dry air.  The added weight of boots, heavy jackets, and layers of warm clothing help our bodies conserve heat, yet make the body work harder and may lead to producing more sweat than usual, yet this increased perspiration evaporates quickly in the cold dry air, so we often do not realize we are sweating. 

Therefore, it’s super-important that you drink as much or more water during winter than summer.

Here’s are some suggestions:

  • Don’t rely on caffeinated hot beverages to fill you up!  Drinks like coffee and hot chocolate are actually diuretics (they pull water from your body).  If you need to drink something hot to warm up, try herbal tea, hot water with lemon and honey, or warm milk.
  • Carry room-temperature water in insulated bottles so that it doesn’t chill into an icy drink.  Although drinking cold water can feel invigorating and increase alertness, it has more negative consequences in your body including thickened nasal mucus, increased blood pressure, teeth sensitivity, and headaches. (svalbardi.com)
  • Drink water before, during and after you exercise!
  • Wear layers and try to be aware when you start to sweat, to adjust them accordingly.
  • Juicy fruits and vegetables and broth-based soups can increase your hydration. 

Humidifiers should not be the first choice to increase humidity in the home.

According to energyvanguard.com, “the cause of dry air in winter is air leakage, so air sealing is the first and best way to keep your humidity from going too low.”  Because running a humidifier is not free, the newly humidified air leaks out just as fast as dry air comes in.  It’s a losing battle!  In addition, humidifiers need to be chosen and used judiciously because they can breed mold, and increase PM2.5 in the air (check out our post here).  They can also cause condensation and mold problems in the building itself.  

What about static electricity?

It’s true, shocks from static electricity are worse in the wintertime because of lower relative humidity.  Static electricity is a buildup of ions in a body, and the lack of moisture in the air allows them to stay put until you touch something that “grounds” you like a metal doorknob.    That’s because dry air is an insulator, not a conductor.  There are several ways you can reduce static electric shocks during the winter:

  • Wear more cotton clothing, because wool and synthetics tend to be insulators. Cotton absorbs more moisture from the air, though, so this can work against you in cold temperatures.
  • Leather-soled shoes will “ground” you more than rubber-soled shoes, because rubber is an insulator.
  • Dryer sheets can reduce static cling by equalizing electrons formed by clothes rubbing together, but many are not recommended to use because respiratory, developmental, endocrine, and reproductive effects. (for example Bounce Sping Fresh Dryer Sheets, ewg.org)  Amazingly, you can combat static in your dryer instead by crumpling up a few pieces of aluminum foil into balls and throwing them into your dryer with your clothes, to keep them static-free and separated. (Dryer Sheet Alternatives)
  • Use a bipolar ionizer in your home, such as the Whole Home Polar Ionizer, Air Angel or Germ Defenders.  These devices release a balance of positive and negative ions into the air, which help to equalize the charge in your body and sanitize surfaces.  It’s a win-win, which leads us to our last truth:

Winter air allows pathogens to stay afloat and viable for longer

Researchers have known since at least 2010 that epidemics of influenza almost always followed a drop in air humidity.  (study) The reasons for this are several: dry air allows the virus particles to float for longer times in the air, and since water vapor in the air may deform the virus’ surface, lack of water vapor keeps its infectious weaponry intact. (BBC.com)  According to the Sterling Chart below, (from a 1986 paper titled, Indirect Health Effects of Relative Humidity in Indoor Environments) you can see how the optimum humidity to ward off bacteria, fungus, and respiratory infections would be about 40-60%, but avoid going higher because of condensation and mold issues.  Keeping our homes sealed from the ingress of dry air and our bodies hydrated will be the best bet to landing in that zone!

Source: energyvanguard.com

After reading this article, you may be a little disappointed in winter air, but with awareness about the possibility of increased air pollution, dehydration and static electricity, you can take precautions and enjoy it just as much as any other season!

It’s not the heat, it’s the air pollution!

It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity air pollution!

Decades ago, when the meteorologists predicted extreme heat, it seemed they only advised on the necessity to stay out of the sun, drink more water, and cool off more frequently (stay in the pool, yayyyy!).  Now, heat advisories come with more sinister warnings about air pollution levels, and the outdoors are less fun.  How did that happen?  The answer lies in meteorology and chemistry, all cooked up in our atmosphere.

Low-pressure systems are quite famous for moving rapidly across the US and bringing devastating weather like severe thunderstorms, hail and tornadoes.  They can also sweep pollutants like smoke and smog to other states.  High-pressure systems, on the other hand, typically cause stagnant air, which can concentrate pollutants over one area.  (scied.ucar.edu)  A “Heat Dome” is an area of high pressure that parks over a region like a lid on a pot, trapping heat. (National Geographic) A Heat Dome caused about 600 deaths in June 2021 in the Pacific NorthWest as a 1-in-1000-year event.  The heat, which broke Portland’s all time record of 107 degrees, was bad enough, but extreme heat combined with stagnant air during a heatwave increases the amount of ozone pollution and particulate pollution. (metone.com)  Here is where the chemistry comes in.

“Ground-level ozone pollution forms when heat and sunlight trigger a reaction between two other pollutants, nitrogen oxide and volatile organic compounds — which come from cars, industrial facilities, and oil and gas extraction. High temperatures therefore make ozone pollution more likely to form and harder to clean up. Drought and heat also increase the risk of wildfire, which can make air quality worse as smoke drives up levels of fine particulate matter — also known as PM2.5, or soot...Both ozone and PM2.5 carry major health risks. Ozone can cause acute symptoms, including coughing and inflamed airways, and chronic effects, including asthma and increased diabetes risk. PM2.5 exposure can lead to an increased risk of asthma, heart attack, and strokes. Globally, long-term exposure to PM2.5 caused one in five deaths in 2018, including 350,000 deaths in the United States.” (Heat waves can be life-threatening for more reasons than one)

Because of the increase in cars and industry, extreme heat forecasts are not just requirements to have bottled water and popsicles on hand and check that our elderly neighbors’ air conditioning is working.  It’s a time to make sure that those who have asthma, heart and vascular conditions stay indoors, and that you take the proper air pollution precautions, too. 

Unlike outdoor air filled with wildfire smoke, ozone and smog are not as visible and may not affect everyone immediately, but they are dangerous pollutants and shouldn’t be allowed in our homes.  Here are some steps you can take to prepare for that heatwave, and the resulting air pollution that often accompanies it!  

  • Seal doors and windows with weatherstripping, caulk and door sweeps.  

  • Find out how to adjust your HVAC system accordingly: you’ll want to close the fresh air intake and change over to recirculation, no matter whether you have central AC, a window air conditioner or portable air conditioner.

  • Purchase extra MERV 13 filters for your HVAC system, to be used on poor air quality days (caution: read our post on HVAC filters first, as using a filter with too high MERV rating can damage your system). 

  • If you live in an apartment building or condo with little control over the HVAC, consider purchasing vent filter material so you can place them in the vents into your space.  The filter material can prevent smaller particulates in smog from entering.  Carbon vent filter material will neutralize many VOCs as well.

  • Purchase a HEPA air cleaner (non-ozone producing type) and be sure to have an extra filter or two on hand.  The use of a HEPA filter will take much of the damaging fine particles out of the air you breathe!  Whenever there is bad air quality outside, run the cleaner/purifier on high for an hour and thereafter at "quiet"/medium setting (Wirecutter).  You can check out our post on standalone HEPA filters as a purchase guide.  If you can't purchase one, make one: there are many videos and instructionals online for DIY air cleaners; most only require one or more filters, a box fan, and some cardboard and tape.

  • Keep a stash of N95 respirator masks on hand.  These are a good source of protection if you have to go outside, or if power is cut to your home and indoor air quality gets bad as well.  The “95” means it blocks out 95% of particulates.   

  • Keep canned and non-perishable food on hand, so that you don’t have to cook during periods of bad air quality.  Cooking indoors increases small particulates and vapors in the air, and you won’t want to turn on your stove exhaust, as that will draw polluted outdoor air into the house.

  • If air quality is very poor (check next point), you’ll want to evacuate to a place with clean, filtered air, like indoor malls, libraries, community centers, civic centers and local government buildings (sfgate.com). 

  • Check your local air quality and receive updates from airnow.gov . Using an Air Quality Index (AQI) as a measuring tool ranging from 0-500, your local forecast and larger maps can be color coded to show whether an area is good (green), moderate (yellow), unhealthy for sensitive groups (orange), unhealthy (red), very unhealthy (purple), and hazardous (maroon).

Photo by Call Me Fred on Unsplash

Surround yourself with trees, and your heart will thank you for it!

Surround yourself with trees, and your heart will thank you for it!

We tend to surround ourselves with what brings us comfort.  It might be your favorite music, your favorite color, your favorite art, and even your favorite pillow or type of sheets when you go to bed.  What if your source of comfort actually made you healthy?  Where you live and what you do with your property is an important choice that can affect your heart health.

We’ve been told for some time that plants have psychological and physical benefits–just look at this page of studies!  A new study (2021) correlates the proximity of living near trees, to arterial stiffness.  According to a 2010 textbook, “Arterial stiffness describes the rigidity of the arterial wall. In the last decade, there has been increasing interest in the potential role of arterial stiffening in the development of cardiovascular disease in adults.”  In addition, the 2015 book Early Vascular Aging states, “Arterial stiffness is a hallmark of arterial aging. As with all other organ systems, changes in the vascular system are induced over time.”  This is very important, because cardiovascular disease (CVD) is the leading cause of death worldwide.  Although many associate CVD with genetics, “recent estimates suggest that up to 70%–80% of CVD burden could be attributed to non-genetic environmental factors, such as lifestyle choices, socioeconomic status, air pollution, lack of surrounding greenness (2), and residential characteristics (2018 study). Indeed, emerging evidence has shown that living in greener areas results in improved health and is associated with lower mortality (2016 study on mortality of women, 2016 study on green spaces and mortality), and reduced CVD risk (2019 study, 2012 study).”

How does the “proximity to greenness” cause these positive effects?  Is it because vegetation promotes exercise or a healthier lifestyle?  Or because it reduces stress?  Trees do have the ability to filter and block particulate matter, and it has been shown that people living in greener areas were exposed to lower levels of volatile organic compounds (2020 study).The 2021 study focused on reduction of pollution, particularly ozone and PM, due to plants and trees in specific radii around the home, and the effect of the reduced pollution on the participants’ arterial data.

What is proximity to greenness?  The study used satellite-derived normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI) for a 200-m and 1-km radius around each participant’s home; the 200 m range was directly around the home, while the 1 km radius indicated walking distance.  Data on ambient levels of pollutant concentrations were retrieved from regional EPA-validated monitoring stations in the Louisville, KY region, that report daily pollutant levels.  The data included PM2.5, PM10 and ozone. 

Here are some specific results: 

  • At smaller radii (200 m) buffer around the home, inverse associations between standard deviation of NDVI and augmentation pressure, aortic pulse pressure, and aortic systolic pressure were observed (as greenness goes up, arterial stiffness goes down). 
  • Significant positive associations between several arterial stiffness metrics and pollutants in low greenness areas were observed, whereas the association between pollutants and arterial stiffness measures was not significant in areas of high greenness (as greenness goes down, arterial stiffness goes up).
  • Arterial stiffness was only associated with NDVI at the 200-m radius, but not the 1-km radius, giving support to the theory that because roadways are sources of pollutants, street trees within a 200-m radius around the individuals’ residence would be more relevant in blocking exposure to pollution. 
  • It was shown that ozone, but not PM2.5, was significantly associated with higher augmentation index (increased arterial stiffness). This suggests that ozone-induced effects on arterial stiffness are independent of PM2.5 exposure and potentially stronger.
  • In addition to modifying the effects of air pollution, proximity to greenness may improve cardiovascular health by decreasing mental stress. Exposure to natural outdoor environments has been found to be associated with better mental health and could facilitate stress reduction (2017 study), and neighborhood greenness is associated with lower levels of self-perceived stress and depression (2018 study), particularly in older adults. In our work, we have found that higher levels of residential greenness are inversely associated with urinary levels of the stress hormone—epinephrine (2018 study). Hence, it seems plausible that some of the effects of greenness on arterial stiffness may be mediated by a reduction in mental stress. 

How can we apply these findings to our own lives?  Since “greenness” is good for our bodies, plant as many trees and shrubs as possible, and encourage your neighbors to do so as well, by letting them know how good it is for them and the neighborhood.  The 200 meter radius is equivalent to 656 feet, which when converted to square feet (656 x 656) is equivalent to 2.3 acres.  That is a big green space that not many people own for their own property, but when spread out over a neighborhood or nearby park, it is certainly achievable.  If you live near a busy highway or road, definitely plant as much green area on the border of your property as you can. 

Some tree species are better than others at absorbing pollution, because as we’ve mentioned in other posts, some plants take in ground-level ozone, while other plants emit isoprene, a VOC that reacts with other atmospheric chemicals to create ozone. (Scientific American).  You definitely want the former type!   Here are some tips:

  • A free online tool called i-Tree Species helps you to select the best plants depending on desired hardiness (after all, if the plant won’t live in your area it won’t do much good to introduce it), mature height and environmental factors such as air pollution removal and air temperature reduction, among other factors.
  • In one recent study, Barbara Maher and colleagues at the University of Lancaster tested the ability of nine tree species to capture PM in wind-tunnel experiments. Silver birch, yew and elder trees were the most effective at capturing particles, and it was the hairs of their leaves that contributed to reduction rates of 79%, 71% and 70% respectively. (bbc.com)
  • Conifers, such as pines and cypresses, are the best pollution filters, while London plane, silver maple and honey locust ranked above average too, according to Jun Yang, an urban ecologist at the Center for Earth System Science, Tsinghua University in Beijing. (bbc.com)
  • If you have the opportunity to give input for city-wide greenery initiatives, be aware that taller species of trees can trap pollutants in areas, so sometimes shrubs are better when narrow streets are surrounded by tall buildings. 
  • If you do have a large property or even a city park to design, remember to diversify the species so that certain pests or adverse conditions like too much or too little rain will not wipe out the whole property.  

In all, green spaces mean gold stars for your heart health, so it’s time to start seeing green!

Photo by Pankaj Shah on Unsplash

How droughts can even impact your air

How droughts can even impact your air

It’s been an unusual year.  In the southeast US, temperatures have been above normal with extended periods of no rain.  In the west, Lake Mead and Lake Powell have lowered by nearly 75% of where lake levels once were as the country's two largest reservoirs.  The Colorado River, which supplies these lakes, is used by seven surrounding states, and for decades annually the region was taking out about 1 million acre-feet of water more than the river was providing (Los Angeles Times).  Much of the country is in drought, and the Southwest is experiencing a megadrought–one it has not seen in 1,200 years. 

What is drought?  Drought arises only after a prolonged (>week) period of precipitation shortage that causes soil to dry up, and these period(s) may reoccur monthly.  Further, the prominent feature of drought is water deficit in both the atmosphere and the land component (e.g., soil and vegetation), resulting from the combination of precipitation shortage and increasing evapotranspirative water loss driven in part by high temperatures.   (2017 study).  When drought hits home, it’s more than water restrictions on your lawn. Here are some of the effects: 

  • Droughts increase ozone and PM2.5. A study released in 2017 examined air quality during 4 severe droughts and found that elevated ozone and PM2.5 are attributed to the combined effects of drought on deposition, natural emissions (wildfires, biogenic volatile organic compounds (BVOCs), and dust), and chemistry. In our post “It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity air pollution”,we noted the correlation between extreme heat and ozone.  Here are some other facts brought forth by the 2017 study: 

    • Meteorological conditions/extremes likely to co-occur with drought that are also associated with higher pollution levels. For example, high ozone is more likely to occur with high temperature and low RH (2016 study; 2017 study, 2016 study 2)

    • more frequent stagnation and heat waves could explain up to 40 % of the ozone and PM2.5 enhancements during drought

    • Since anthropogenic sources of ozone and PM2.5 have decreased significantly since 1990, the ozone and PM2.5 enhancements during drought are largely responses of natural processes from the land biosphere and abnormal atmospheric conditions. 

  • Droughts affect plants and their interaction with atmospheric ozone in complicated ways.  Some plants take in ground-level ozone, while other plants emit isoprene, a VOC that reacts with other atmospheric chemicals to create ozone. (Scientific American).  While studying the 2011-2015 drought in California, scientists found that: 

    • Dry conditions caused the plants to restrict water loss by closing their stomata (pores), which means taking in less ozone (ozone levels rose). Absorption did drop by about 15% during the most severe years of the drought.

    • Plants and trees were able to sustain isoprene production during the first three years by drawing on their carbon stores; isoprene helps them against heat stress. 

    • After 4 years, isoprene production dropped, and so did ozone (by 20%).  

  • Drying lakebeds (like the Great Salt Lake in Utah) expose people to toxic elements like arsenic when dust storms pick up lake bed dust, which are residuals of pesticides and agricultural chemicals that migrated into the lake over many decades.. (New York Times)  Another dried lake that causes air quality problems is Owens Lake in California, which is the country’s largest source of PM10 (geochange.er.gov).

  • Droughts can increase transmission of soil and dust-transmitted diseases like Valley Fever, which is coccidiodomycosis (Cocci for short).  Dust that is liberated from the soil during digging activities or dry, windy conditions can carry the fungus, which workers or residents can breathe in.  It causes symptoms like fever, cough and tiredness, but can occasionally be serious or deadly.

  • Trees and plants weakened by drought are more vulnerable to pests and disease, which can kill large numbers of them. Plants that succumb to drought and die cause several problems:

    • they turn from absorbing ozone and CO2 to emitting carbon via CO2.  

    • Dead plants and trees increase the risk of wildfires.

  • Droughts impact electric power generation systems (the Grid)in the following ways (americanscientist.org):

    • Hydropower is reduced because of low stream flow

    • Demand for electricity increases because increased cooling is needed in homes and offices 

    • Fossil-fuel plants (coal, natural gas) must increase production of electricity.

    • This means that air pollution increases during drought due to our electric power generation system. IF changes can be made to shift to “cleaner” generators (ie. natural gas instead of coal) during drought, it is generally better for air quality. 

In all, drought is a serious, complicated blight on both the land and the air, which we at HypoAir have felt for some time because California has been in long-term drought.  Finding ways to reduce water and energy consumption helps everyone, so don’t wait until regulations forces change–here’s a list of ways you can help your community and family before and during drought.  However, it’s the unseen increases in ozone, PM2.5, fungus and other forms of air pollution for which the public generally doesn’t prepare.  Here are some ways you can be smarter about air pollution from drought:

  • Continue to work on air sealing your home

  • Have extra MERV 13 furnace filters, air purifier filters, and filter media on hand so that you can change these more frequently

  • Have N95 respirators on hand for the immune-impaired who need to go outside 

  • Be cautious about excavation and construction work in areas where Valley Fever is a risk (wear an N95 mask if necessary)

Photo by redcharlie on Unsplash

Some small plants can make a big difference!

Some small plants can make a big difference!

I have to admit that this post was inspired by an episode of Alone.  One of the participants boiled “Reindeer Moss” to eat.  That made me wonder, is moss good for anything else?

You will never see some of the best plants at filtering air pollution when strolling through the aisles at the local garden center or nursery.  Why?  Well, they just aren’t…popular.  If we only knew what they could do, maybe they would take front and center stage!

Moss: Ok, you may see moss at the garden center but it’s typically only used as a decoration to cover bare soil.  A couple of German entrepreneurs think it has a lot more to offer than decoration.  They have launched their business to bring moss walls to cities across Europe and around the world.  Moss walls are available in three configurations for installation in temporary or permanent displays.  Why moss?  

  • The moss walls filter up to 82% of fine dust from the air flowing through them.
  • Water vapor evaporates from the leaf surface of the moss, creating a cooling effect of up to 4 degrees C (about 7 deg F)
  • The moss wall also removes up to 355 kg of CO2 every year.

To make the most out of this amazing plant, fans draw in air through the moss and sensors monitor the health of the plants, providing automatic watering.  Sounds like we could use moss walls in the US!

Plankton: Unless you are a fish enthusiast, plankton is not usually very convenient to keep in your home.  Enter the Bio Orb, a glass container of bioluminescent phytoplankton, plankton that can produce light at night and fresh oxygen during the daytime.  Pyro Farms, is the maker of the Bio Orb, a glass sphere with a flat bottom and a specially designed stopper to allow air exchange but prevents excessive evaporation.  The Bio-Orb provides the ideal environment for growing PyroDinos (the bioluminescent phytoplankton) at home, in the office or at school.  (pyrofarms.com)  Scientists estimate that all plant-plankton (phytoplankton) are responsible for more than 70% of the air we breathe, so keeping plankton in your home, school or office offsets your personal carbon output. (earthsky.org)

Source: (pyrofarms.com)

Lichen: I remember learning about this plant in biology and probably geography.  Pictures of reindeer munching on lichen in the tundra come to mind.  What I don’t remember learning is that it’s not actually just a plant, but a combination of two or three organisms: a fungus and green algae or cyanobacteria, often both.  The fungus provides the structure that determines the shape of the organism, while the algae and/or cyanobacteria  provide photosynthesis to feed both the fungus and the algae/bacteria.  There are three types of lichen growth, which have various abilities to absorb pollutants and concentrate heavy metals (hobbyfarms.com).  They are like natural sensors in the environment to tell us about the pollutants in the air. 

  • Crustose lichens are flat; since they have the least amount of surface area to absorb pollutants, they are the most abundant.

  • Foliose lichens have a leafy shape and tend to stand off the substrate (wood, rock, etc) a bit.  They have a little more surface area so are a little less tolerant to air pollution.

  • Fruticose lichens are like tender, miniature shrubs, having the most surface area.  These only thrive in pristine areas with minimal air pollution.  

Next time you are on a walk, look for moss and lichen.  They are small plants that can make big contributions to healthy air!

Two "Moss Trees", source greencitysolutions.de