The Air That I Breathe

bad air 2Sometimes all I need is the air that I breathe
And to love you
All I need is the air that I breathe
Yes to love you
All I need is the air that I breathe”

~ The Hollies*

“It’s my morning ritual,” he said, “I have to do this every day before I sit down.” I met my EPA friend at his office first thing one morning, years ago. He took a few minutes to wipe down his desk, chairs and bookcases where dust had settled out of the ceilings overnight. The employees complained without getting any action, but finally persuaded the administration to hire an asbestos contractor, who inspected the space above the ceiling tiles.

The story goes that the contractor needed to inspect the Regional Administrator’s office during a long conference call. The administrator waved him in and motioned for silence, so the contractor quietly set up his ladder. He slid open the tile above the administrator’s desk, and a two-pound chunk of asbestos insulation fell down onto the desk with a loud clunk. Within a year, EPA had moved into new offices.

Indoor air is a serious environmental problem. Sometimes the issues are caused by external sources. Uranium or radium in soils, like we have in Colorado, can cause radon to build up in poorly ventilated structures. Some soil or groundwater pollutants, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), can likewise cause hazardous vapor accumulation in some structures. The solution for external radon or VOC sources is to collect the pollutants prior to their entrance into the enclosed spaces through subfloor collectors and vent them to the atmosphere.

But external sources are less common than indoor pollutant sources. Carpets, furniture, cleaning products and some wallboard can emit VOCs. Wear on carpeting and other surfaces creates particulates, and poor ventilation systems can spread them throughout the building. When employees are crowded together with poor ventilation, the carbon dioxide that people exhale and VOCs emitted from the dry cleaning, perfumes and deodorants they wear can build up and concentrate. In private homes, pets can contribute significantly to dust, pollen and particulate levels in air.

Physicist and building science expert Allison Bailes says, “Over the past few decades, the air in many buildings has gotten worse as we’ve started to make them more airtight. We also put a lot of nasty, offgassing materials in our buildings. The result is that we breathe in more VOCs, more carbon dioxide, more particulate matter.”

All of these pollutants have potential health impacts, not to mention how they can effect worker productivity (increased carbon dioxide can make people sleepy — and grumpy). Increasing the air exchange rate dilutes the pollutants but also increases building climate control costs. Providing larger, less crowded work spaces helps with dilution but also adds to costs. Air filters and ionic air purifiers can reduce some air pollutants if properly maintained, but air purifiers can also add ozone to the indoor air. All air treatment options add costs and maintenance requirements.

Improved ventilation and dilution can address the indoor air problems if the outdoor air is sufficiently clean. Obviously, most places have air quality that is clean and healthy, although some places have dangerous levels of outdoor air pollution, at least periodically, such as during inversions, fires or dust storms.

Treating pollutants at the source is the most efficient way to improve ambient air quality and is required in the United States, but mobile source emissions, such as cars, can be difficult to control. Air pollution control can also be expensive and sometimes technically challenging.

Artist Daan Roosegaarde became concerned about smog in urban areas, “So we decided to build the largest smog vacuum cleaner in the world. It sucks up polluted air, cleans it and then releases it. And we built the first one. So it sucks up 30,000 cubic meters per hour, cleans it on the nano level — the PM2.5, PM10 particles — using very little electricity, and then releases the clean air, so we have parks, playgrounds, which are 55 to 75 percent more clean than the rest of the city (Beijing).”

While the approach is quite amazing, it’s hard to see it as a ubiquitious solution to poor air quality. For example, urban trees can also remove much of the particulate pollution from air and replace carbon dioxide with oxygen, all for very reasonable costs.

The use of electric cars is expected to eliminate much pollution from autos, but currently most electricity is generated by coal or natural gas power plants that have their own emission issues. We need to take a holistic approach to resolving air pollution and other environmental problems and be careful not to shift the environmental impacts from one media to another.

In our broad approach to solving air pollution issues, source control is preferred where appropriate. Next we need to consider the broader ideas for ambient pollution. Vegetation helps to clean the air and trees specifically remove pollutants, reduce high temperatures, improve aesthetics and improve our health. Urban vegetation is a good starting point in our fight against ambient air pollution – we need more trees. Trees are our friends.

After all, air pollution is nothing to sneeze at.

Additional information:

Lloyd Alter, Why an Office is Not a Spaceship, October 11, 2017,

Lloyd Alter, Does Your Building Suffer From Dumb Building Syndrome?, October 12, 2017,

Daan Roosegaarde, A Smog Vacuum Cleaner and Other Magical City Designs, TedTalks, April 2017

Note: I frequently reference articles from and highly recommend them for individuals interested in sustainability and environmental issues. You can easily sign up for their newsletter and other information.

*my favorite version is by KD Lang from the album “Drag.”

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