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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

Fiberglass: the air quality problem you didn’t consider

Fiberglass: the air quality problem you didn’t consider

With extreme weather issues such as storms and fires in the news, we can become very focused on mold from water damage and particulate matter (PM) from air pollution like smoke, but another problem has been silently causing lung and whole-body issues for decades: fiberglass insulation.

Fiberglass insulation, also known as glass wool, was accidentally invented in the 1930’s and patented in 1938 as Fiberglas.  It became a popular insulation for building and comes in batts, with a paper or plastic backing, or is available in loose form in bags, that can be blown into place.  Now fiberglass is used in: 

  • Appliances like dishwashers, refrigerators, ovens, exhaust fans, clothes dryers
  • Kerosene heaters and wood-burning stoves
  • roof shingles
  • Beds (also known as a silica sock)
  • Cigarette filters
  • HEPA and HVAC filters
  • Light fixtures
  • Carpets
  • Packing tape
  • And even some brands of toothpaste!

Children may be especially vulnerable to potential effects from fiberglass particle inhalation. “We’ve seen a substantial increase in air quality concerns from homeowners with young children experiencing chronic cough and eye irritation,” says Jeffrey Bradley, president of IndoorDoctor LLC. Bradley says fiberglass is often the culprit. (iqair.com)

Like most materials, fiberglass insulation degrades over time, and water speeds up the degradation process.  Therefore, although blown-in insulation is a popular choice for insulating attics and walls, leaving fiberglass exposed to humid air can cause the fibers to break and become airborne.  Typically, most manufacturers warn about wearing masks if you manually “disturb” the insulation by pushing past it or cutting into it.  However, loose fiberglass that is exposed to air currents can pick up these small fibers without manual disturbance, resulting in unhealthy PM2.5 levels in homes where it gets entrained into the air conditioning system.  

One woman has detailed her family’s project to remove all the fiberglass from their house after it was determined that fiberglass dust was making her sick.  Fiberglassawareness.com is a very useful website with many photos of where fiberglass is used in homes, and even cars and other buildings where you may not suspect it.  That pink (or yellow or white or green) stuff that you thought remained in the attic, doesn’t always stay where it belongs!  Wherever you can see exposed fiberglass, it may be emitting small particles into the air.  That means if it is peeking out of the ends of wrapped ducts, or falling (sometimes imperceptibly) out of can light fixtures, or being sucked into your AC system through small leaks in the ducts, it is in the air you breathe and can cause a myriad of health issues.  This page details a long list of fiberglass-exposure symptoms which overlap with mold-exposure symptoms, fibromyalgia symptoms, and auto-immune disorder symptoms, so the main culprit can be hard to diagnose.  In addition, many fiberglass insulation products use:

  • Phenol formaldehyde to bind the fiberglass fibers together (iqair.com), and the off-gassing of formaldehyde can cause similar symptoms. Formaldehyde is a carcinogen and exposure to fiberglass insulation formaldehyde causes brain cancer. According to John D. Spengler et.al., in the "Indoor Air Quality Handbook," residents of mobile homes who are exposed to fiberglass insulation are at increased risk of brain cancer. 
  • Styrene or Vinyl-Benzene is found in fiberglass insulation, and because benzene is used in many home other consumer products like water bottles, convenience food trays and wrappers, and feminine products, it contributes to a thick low-lying VOC cloud in some homes. According to Teresa Holler in the book "Holler for Your Health," styrene is toxic to the nervous system and exposure to styrene in fiberglass insulation causes behavioral changes, concentration problems, depression, tiredness, headaches, memory problems and weakness.  According to Andre E. Baert in the book "Biomedical and Health Research," long-term exposure to styrene in fiberglass insulation causes brain tumors and cancer. (ehow.com)
  • Methyl-ethyl-ketone (MEK) is used as a binder in some fiberglass.  Nick H. Proctor et.al., in the book "Proctor and Hughes' Chemical Hazards of the Workplace," list methyl ethyl ketone as a neurotoxin and exposure to MEK in fiberglass insulation as a cause for dizziness, nausea, headaches, depression and unconsciousness. (ehow.com)

According to the California Department of Public Health, frequent exposure to fiberglass insulation causes permanent changes in the central nervous system, the symptoms of which include personality changes, poor coordination, fatigue and poor concentration.(ehow.com)

How do you get rid of fiberglass in the air?  In some cases “encapsulation” can be an answer, which means that you can add a layer of protection over it.  We should never see exposed fiberglass (the brown paper side is supposed to be installed on the “warm” side, which in southern climates leaves the fiberglass exposed to the inside of the attic).  This real estate inspector wrote an article on encapsulation from the point of view that fiberglass is a poor air barrier and therefore should have a proper air barrier on both sides.  However, he notes at the end that a homeowner should not try to encapsulate any fiberglass himself, because of the risk of causing mold if moisture cannot escape.  

Here’s how you can minimize your exposure to fiberglass: 

  • Repair damaged sections of fiberglass insulation with proper foil duct tape.
  • If you have blown-in fiberglass in your attic or walls, seal all penetrations such as ceiling fixtures, wire and plumbing penetrations, light switches, and cracks in drywall
  • Check the internal condition of any “duct board” ducts or ducts internally insulated with fiberglass.  Unfortunately these degrade over time and cause the fibers to become entrained in the air.
  • If your health issues have not resolved, consider removing some or all of the fiberglass that could be causing them. 
  • Replace fiberglass insulation with ducts that are insulated with air bubble wrap, and walls and ceiling insulation with spray foam or cellulose insulation (however, be aware that cellulose insulation is treated with fire retardants to make it safe, which can cause other health issues to those who are sensitive). (nachi.org)

If you know or suspect that your health problems are being caused by fiberglass or VOCs that come from the fiberglass, keep a journal of how you feel during the day at different times, including where you are, what you are doing,  if the building’s HVAC is running, what you are wearing, eating, working with, etc.  It’s possible that you can find the link by putting the pieces together from your experiences, and from others’ experiences.  Research sites of others with environmental and chemical sensitivities, such as Fiberglassawareness.com, mychemicalfreehouse.net, and nontoxicforhealth.com (the latter two have a lot of scientific research on them), and don’t give up! 

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