Q. Dear Umbra,
I’ve heard that indoor air quality can be just as bad or worse than outdoor air. But why is it different, and what can I do now that we’re all staying home?
— But Really, Eternity At The House Looks Ever So Suffocating
A. Dear BREATHLESS,
Ariana Grande is not a doctor — that we know of — but she has a song about anxiety called “breathin” that contains an upbeat hook and some excellent health advice: “just keep breathin.” Breathing deeply is one the most basic and effective ways to temporarily stave off a panic attack, which is something that feels like more of a daily risk due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Granted, it’s not just the novel coronavirus’s anxiety-producing qualities that make breathing such a fraught activity at the moment! There’s valid concern about those pesky virus-carrying droplets, and it’s tempting to hold one’s mask-clad breath when you pass another human on the street, even if you give each other the recommended 6-foot berth. With public health officials still asking people to shelter in place to prevent transmission, inside air feels like the only safe air (especially if you live alone).
For the foreseeable future, we’re supposed to be staying in our homes as much as possible so as not to exchange said droplets. So it’s only natural that you’re putting more thought into the quality of the air you’re breathing in your home. Of course, there’s the kind of stoner-y question that you may have spent much of Monday (4/20 blaze it!) pondering: Isn’t the air inside the same as the air outside?
Possibly, yes! If you live near a point source of air pollution, like a freeway, coal-fired power plant, or warehouse district, venturing outside could increase your exposure to harmful chemicals or irritants. Building walls also filter out a lot of the particulate pollution that floats around outside; the degree to which they filter depends a lot on factors that are fairly obvious, like how old the wall is — newer edifices are generally more airtight — and whether you keep your windows and doors open a lot.
But you’re also correct that indoor air quality is not always superior to what’s outside! There’s ample opportunity for particulate matter and toxic chemical interactions to float around your kitchen and right into your lungs and bloodstream. And because those new toxic molecules are being born in a space enclosed by borders more restricting than, well, the sky, there’s more potential that they’ll end up inside of you. That’s just math.
There’s the additional anxiety-producing factor that poor air quality has been tied to greater vulnerability to coronavirus. That makes a great deal of sense; poor air quality is tied to all types of health conditions that, when combined with COVID, can lead to a pretty disastrous illness. And it actually turns out that some of the things you may have been doing to protect yourself from COVID-19 — cleaning liberally with bleach, for example — could be damaging your lungs, which, again, might make you more vulnerable to severe symptoms, should you happen to catch coronavirus! I know, every day is a waking nightmare of impossible contradictions. Let’s continue.
The good news is you have far more direct influence over indoor air quality than outdoor; you can hardly run into the street and yell at cars and trucks to turn off their engines, or power plants to stop burning coal, or basically any industrial entity to stop doing what it’s doing or, well, you get it. But you do have control over how you cook, what products you use, whether you smoke, the kind of designer drugs you’re making in the bathtub (everyone is trying new hobbies!), that sort of thing.
There are some indoor factors you don’t really control, like whether your home has asbestos or radon or lead paint or other contaminants. But those are increasingly rare, especially in newer homes, and you’d hopefully be notified about them when you moved in.
I spoke with Delphine Farmer, professor of atmospheric chemistry and head of the Farmer Lab at Colorado State University, about how to keep your home air as clean as possible. She said a lot of it comes down to cleaning products! Bleach and Lysol and peroxide all contain molecules that interact with amines, an ammonia derivative that occurs naturally in human breath, apparently. It’s also produced by a number of cooking processes! Farmer emphasizes that bleach-based cleaning products have the capacity to do a fair amount of damage in terms of creating toxic compounds that end up in your lungs.
So if you do have to clean with bleach, for whatever reason, make sure the room is very well-ventilated — fan, open window, etc. But you may not have to take an uzi to countertop contaminants, so to speak. Remember that the coronavirus hates just regular soap: the lipids in basic dish soap water do a fantastic job destroying it! So if you’re looking for pure COVID prevention, you can rest assured that sudsy water goes a long way.
And while we’re super pro-home cooking over here at Ask Umbra, et al., it would be irresponsible not to point out that it has an effect on your indoor air quality. After all, cooking is fundamentally a series of chemical reactions. Basically any time you put oil on a hot pan, you’re creating particulate pollution. It is what it is! To minimize harm, use a kitchen vent, if you have one, or keep your windows open.
That brings us to one faint bright side of the whole pandemic situation: Outdoor air quality actually has markedly improved in many places — including the notoriously smoggy Los Angeles — due to the sharp drop in people driving around. Keeping a few window sashes hoisted high can do wonders for both your home air ventilation and, at least anecdotally, your mental health. But again, that advice is entirely dependent on where you live; if your home is on a formerly busy arterial road that’s now quiet enough to hear birdsong, go wild! If you live near a petrochemical plant that’s still chugging away, mmm, maybe not so much.
I’ll leave you with one last tip courtesy of Farmer: Even if the indoor air feels and smells a bit stale, scented candles and ionizers are not the way to go from an air quality perspective. I know, the candle part hurts me too. You can buy air purifiers that are more effective; or, again, (I’ll repeat this until I black out) open some windows.
And, of course, just keep breathin’. Seriously, there’s no alternative.