Each morning, I scan the headlines on the digital version of The New York Times. I admit that I don’t read very many articles (apparently I’ve joined the Twitter generation that is easily satiated on 144 characters), but it does give me the feeling that I am generally in touch with what’s going on in the world.
Recently, they’ve added a section where they review home products and make recommendations. The other day they reviewed home air pollution monitors. Seeing that headline reminded me that there are pathogens floating around in the air that can affect brain function. It got me wondering if we made a mistake by moving into an apartment that’s about 100 yards from a busy highway. So I read the article…
…and I ordered the recommended device.
It arrived a day later and I eagerly scanned the simple directions that were offered in 5 different languages. I left it out on the balcony overnight, as instructed, so it could ‘calibrate’ itself, and then brought it inside the following morning and turned it on to get the verdict.
It happily flashed readings for four different categories of pollutants. An indicator light told me my status for each category: green for good air quality, yellow for passable (only people with breathing problems need worry), and red for unhealthy for everyone. Here were my results:
AQI: 20 – green
HCHO: .26 – yellow
TVOC: .91 – yellow
PM2.5: 5 – green
It was somewhat comforting to know that we were not subjecting ourselves to dangerous levels of air pollution in our new abode, but what exactly were we measuring? And was there anything I could do about those yellow readings to get them down into the green range?
So I googled the letters and here’s what I found:
AQI: Air Quality Index. This is a number you’re likely to get in your daily weather report. Anything under 50 is good. It measures these chemicals:
* ground-level ozone
* particle pollution (including PM2.5)
* carbon monoxide
* sulfur dioxide
* nitrogen dioxide
So it looks like we have nothing to worry about from our proximity to the highway. Whew!
HCHO: Formaldehyde. Yup…it’s not just for preserving your frog in biology class. It’s found in a variety of construction products and is even used in clothing to create the permanent press quality. Under .1 milligrams per cubic meter is good; our reading of .26 put us at the high end of the passable zone which ran from .11 to .30. Using an air conditioner and dehumidifier can reduce harmful levels and effects.
TVOC: Total Volatile Organic Compounds. These include chemicals found in paints, solvents, cleaners, disinfectants, pesticides, air fresheners and other household items. The safe range is less than .6 milligrams per cubic meter. Our reading of .91 was in the passable range of .6 to 1.6. Interestingly, our own bodies give off high levels of these compounds. I scared the bejeezus out of myself when I was testing the air and the TVOC level shot up into the red zone. It turned out that I had my finger on the air intake grid! I also noticed that the level skyrocketed when I was cooking dinner. It turns out that heated oils also give off a lot of volatile organic compounds. Not buying aerosols and good ventilation seem to be the best things you can do to offset their impact.
PM2.5: Fine Particulate Matter of 2.5 microns or less. Smokestack emissions, cars, fires and construction sites are the biggest sources of these and many EPA regulations are designed to reduce their release into the atmosphere. High PM2.5 levels have been linked to Alzheimer’s-like atrophy in the brain.
Using a HEPA air purifier is one way to reduce your PM2.5 levels inside your home. We have two of them running all the time and our reading was a good 5. I did an experiment and turned the air purifier up to max output in the bedroom, closed the doors and let it run for 3 hours. It dropped the number from 5 to 2. Anything under 12 is in the good range.
I took the monitor outside to test ambient levels for all 4 measures, then brought it inside so I could compare the two. Perhaps not surprisingly, the two readings that had to do with particulates and air quality were better inside while the two readings that had to do with organic compounds and formaldehyde were worse on the inside.
So what have I learned?
I have a feeling that it won’t really do me much good to know the daily levels in the apartment as there is only so much I can do to better conditions on a day-to-day basis. I can be more aware when buying some household products, but it seems the formaldehyde levels are probably baked into the construction. And although our levels aren’t ideal, they don’t seem to be cause for alarm. When we see air quality alerts on tv, I suppose we can crank up the air purifiers if we want.
Bottom line: I think I’ll return the monitor on Monday.
PS: Drafting this post, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the song ‘Air’ from ‘Hair.’ Here it is for your listening enjoyment!