Indoor Air Quality: The New Environmental Improvement Trend

ByMarc Silberberg


The first time Earth Day was instituted was fifty-four years ago on June 22,1969 when horrific photos of the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland Ohio were burning out of control. No, this was not the first time this very dirty river had ignited, it was the thirteenth time! The first fire was in 1868 and would burn twelve more times with a fire in 1912 killing five dock workers and the one in 1952 causing over one million dollars in damages. As often happens in history and life something so devastating ended up being the catalyst that changed the way the government looked at environmental issues by instituting laws that ultimately would have a major impact on the way this river flowed. Today birds and boat enthusiasts use this river for fun recreational activities. The banks of the Cuyahoga are lined with restaurants and other food venues. Prior to the 1969 fire, there had been no living creatures in the river such as fish because of all the fires that kept raging notably from oil slicks.

The river in 1969 was described by Clevelander Frank Samsel as “smelling like a septic tank bubbling methane in the summer months.” The fire began when a spark from a train crossing a bridge over the river ignited all the toxic junk in the river which raged until a fireboat put out the fire.

The First Earth Day – 1969

The Mayor of Cleveland, Carl Stokes, was at the scene of the 1969 fire and coincidentally there was already preparation ten months prior for the first Earth Day. This was because earlier that year, California had a major oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, which released millions of gallons of oil into the ocean forming a thirty-five-mile-long oil slick. With news photographers taking pictures of all the dead mammals and birds, no wonder the first Earth Day was already in preparation. But the burning Cleveland River was the icing on the cake and within three years Congress put into effect a new agency named, The Environmental Protection Agency, of which we are all familiar with today. At the same time, Congress passed the Clean Water Act, which was voted in by Stokes’ brother, Louis who was at the same time a Congressman from Ohio.

By March 2019 the Ohio EPA announced that the fish in the Cuyahoga River were safe to fish and eat but there was a detail that still has to be worked on and that is that no one should eat those fish more than once a month. Doesn’t sound perfect yet, but definitely an improvement from 1969 when there were no fish present at all in the river.

Why is Indoor Air Quality So Important?

Most people spend ninety percent of their time indoors. This statistic, which comes from numerous surveys, is surprising since our generation is jogging, biking, and running all the time no matter what the weather. Just the amount of time we spend sleeping and eating will cause the imbalance no matter how much you exercise outdoors and therefore the current interest in indoor air quality.

In the olden days, opening the windows no matter what the season and airing out the linen, rugs, etc. was standard cleaning practices. However, as we are all aware the pollution in the outdoor air is not very good for the inside of our homes. Most of us who are fortunate enough to have HVAC systems will rarely open our windows. In fact, in most new office buildings you cannot open the windows at all. Therefore, we must try our best to keep the air quality in our homes, schools, health care centers, hospitals, and offices as safe as possible. This is no easy task especially when serious viruses such as COVID-19 invade our daily lives. As we have learned in the past, viruses and germs pass through HVAC systems and can make the people in those offices or other venues sick without being in physical contact with someone who has the virus. Since COVID-19 struck there are many new appliances that not only clean the air but also kill the germs that cause disease.

What is Fine Particle Pollution? (PM2.5)

It’s so interesting how a pollutant that’s been around as long as we have been alive now has a fancy name for itself. Fine particle pollution, formerly known as soot, is quite a serious health hazard no matter what you call it. On January 6, of this year, 2023, the EPA proposed to lower the levels of accepted PM from a level of twelve micrograms per cubic meter to between nine and ten micrograms. (More details are included in the CASAC Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee’s latest study.) Adults and children with lung problems such as asthma are more threatened by the presence of soot in their indoor air. Soot originates from the outdoors via smokestacks, construction sites or dusty unpaved roads.

I still remember that over fifty years ago when I was living on the sixth floor (which was the top floor) of an apartment building the soot that was present outside permeated my apartment. Not only could I not open the windows but even by keeping them shut there were always black particles on the windowsills. The EPA review of 2012, of the PM is old news and even then, it predicted the dangers of fine particle pollution. If the EPA would lower the PM2.5 standard to 9 micrograms per cubic meter, it could impede the following negatives. There were 270,000 lost workdays each year from sickness from soot. It estimates that there were up to 4,200 premature deaths per year as well.

Other similar pollutants, such as methane, oil and gas pollution, power plant emissions and others are on the list of President Biden’s, Good Neighbor Plan to reduce smog and soot in all cities and rural areas. As we learned at the beginning of this article, even if you live away from factories and such if a river nearby is polluted it affects the citizens in that area. Heavy duty trucks will have to conform to the Clean Trucks Rule that will cut down the soot and smog coming from these vehicles.

The Clean Air Act of 1970

This act enacted so many years ago is still vital to the reduction of indoor and outdoor air quality. The Clean Air Act prepared the way for the federal and state governments to work together to reduce emissions from factories and vehicles. By providing clear standards for both commercial and residential buildings, it assures residents that they will not have soot forming on their windowsills even if the windows are tightly shut.

If not for the Clean Air Act and its partner The Clean Water Act, citizens of Cleveland, Ohio might not see fish in their river but only oil slick and bubbling methane. Now they can go near the river without that horrible septic tank stench and can see approximately seventy types of fish swimming in their river. They still have a way to go so that the jumping fish can be eaten more than once a month. By 2050, the city of Cleveland is aiming for an eighty percent decrease in greenhouse gas emissions. The Cuyahoga River runs into Lake Erie which has become a renewable generator of electricity with presently six wind turbines.

The Indoor airPLUS program

This program is a voluntary program geared to both builders and buyers of new homes to help them enhance the indoor air quality of their homes. This program was introduced by the EPA with specific specifications to prevent any type of pollutants in the air from affecting everyone’s health negatively, especially those people with serious breathing issues. The Indoor airPLUS program works in conjunction with the EPA Energy Star program for new construction of homes.

How can a builder become a member of the Indoor airPLUS program partnership? Their new home plans must include combustion venting systems, moisture limiting systems, and radon resisting systems to name a few requirements. Before getting a single or multi dwelling reviewed and approved by the potential homeowner, the builder has the plans certified by Energy Star. The next step is to get approval from the Indoor air Plus program by showing that there are specific features to combat pests, moisture, mold, and other airborne gases that affect the indoor air quality.

New Innovations in Commercial Buildings

Some folks are against keeping their homes airtight to avoid outdoor pollution. We are still not confident that it is possible to have a home or building that will have superior indoor air quality. However, that is exactly what building owners are starting to do. Keeping buildings airtight prevents pollutants from coming indoors. If there is a fire nearby the smoke will not come through the cracks. There will of course be increased ventilation alternatives by upgrading the HVAC systems and added purification systems. The HVAC filters will be updated to at least MERV 13.

If these systems are not practical for already built buildings, there is an alternative of delivering filtered air which can enhance the indoor air quality in the building. Using local air purification systems may decrease the necessity of a complete rehaul of the HVAC system.

Final Words

Unfortunately, this year’s wildfires and excessive summer heat has taught us that it is crucial to have superior indoor air quality. Since we can spend ninety- percent of our time indoors, especially escaping the heat and air pollution, it is incumbent upon each and every business and homeowner to take the upgrading of their indoor air quality seriously.

Agencies such as the Clean Air Act and the Indoor airPLUS program working together with the EPA are striving to get the best indoor air quality for us as possible. For those of us who are living in regular homes we can still do our part to cut down on fine particle pollution (soot) in our homes by checking the air quality on a regular basis.

There are companies that specialize in maintaining satisfactory indoor air quality whether by cleaning air ducts and vents, upgrading your present HVAC system and installing air purifying systems. The main thing we must realize is that we cannot ignore the state of our indoor air quality, especially if going outside to get some fresh air is a thing of the past. By noticing specific signs indoors such as soot on the windowsills or coughing and shortness of breath by residents in your home you will be aware of a need to check and improve your home’s air quality. Those families with a history of asthma or heart disease should be especially alert to any signs of poor air quality since fine particle pollution can invade the lungs of innocent children and the elderly.

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