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With wildfire smoke, improving indoor air quality at home is crucial

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

This summer's heat and wildfires have driven people indoors. So for the latest installment in our Living Better series, NPR's Ari Daniel looked into how best to improve your indoor air quality at home.

(SOUNDBITE OF KEYS JINGLING)

ARI DANIEL, BYLINE: Eighty-seven-year-old Marvin Wilkenfeld leads the way into his small, temporary apartment.

MARVIN WILKENFELD: I'm only going to be here for probably another two weeks.

DANIEL: So things aren't quite as put away as he might like, but he's kind enough to show me around. There's a radio in each room and a couple guitars.

WILKENFELD: I suppose it's tuned.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DANIEL: Wilkenfeld spent a good chunk of his life running a natural food store in Manhattan. Then in 2004, he moved here to Newton, Mass.

WILKENFELD: The opportunity came for a much lower cost of living, and I couldn't resist it.

DANIEL: So Wilkenfeld moved into this government-subsidized apartment for low-income seniors run by the nonprofit 2Life Communities. He liked the place a lot, but Wilkenfeld has a dust and pollen allergy.

WILKENFELD: I get very stuffy and very congested, constantly blowing my nose.

DANIEL: He had the carpeting removed from his apartment. It helped, but still...

WILKENFELD: There's always a certain amount of dust that comes in. You can feel it. It's kind of gritty.

DANIEL: So when 2Life Communities announced their plans to renovate, Wilkenfeld was thrilled.

This is your floor.

WILKENFELD: This is my floor.

DANIEL: He takes me to his corner apartment.

WILKENFELD: They made the bathroom larger and the kitchen wider. So...

(SOUNDBITE OF SAW HUMMING)

WILKENFELD: You can tell they're actually working.

DANIEL: But there's more to this project than just room resizing. Joe O'Toole is the facilities director.

JOE O'TOOLE: We just came off of two years of COVID, and ventilation is very key.

DANIEL: He says that before the renovation, ventilation meant opening the windows.

O'TOOLE: There was no real cleaning of the air. There was no filtration of the air within the units.

DANIEL: Now even when the windows are shut, every unit still gets a steady supply of outside air through what's called an energy recovery ventilator, a system of airflow that trades inside air for filtered outside air.

O'TOOLE: It's taking air from in here, from the bathroom and the kitchen.

DANIEL: And pushing it outside, along with any indoor air pollutants.

O'TOOLE: Smoke, grease, sprays and stuff in the bathroom. And at the same time, it's bringing the same volume of outside air back into the unit.

DANIEL: Another big change is the heating and cooling setup. The new system is called variable refrigerant flow that also provides air filtration. Resident Marvin Wilkenfeld says the changes are marvelous.

WILKENFELD: I'm looking forward to moving in and knowing that my indoor environment is being cleansed and it's comfortable.

DANIEL: But let's say you live in or manage a place where the air is your responsibility. It can be a lot to keep track of. Katherine Pruitt is with the American Lung Association.

KATHERINE PRUITT: Actually, working on indoor air quality makes you kind of crazy.

DANIEL: Because once you learn about possible pollutants, you can't stop noticing them. But she says there are three basic things you can do. The first is ventilation.

PRUITT: In general, fresh air from outside is better than no fresh air from outside.

DANIEL: Which means that opening up your windows is often the simplest way to disperse anything nefarious inside. Or in some homes, running your HVAC can bring in outside air. However...

PRUITT: There are some times when the air outside is not a good idea to be bringing into your home.

DANIEL: Just take the terrible air billowing off the wildfires in Canada this summer. In that case, you could turn to the second option at your disposal, filtration.

ANDREW IBRAHIM: And it's not any filtration. There is different filtration levels.

DANIEL: This is Andrew Ibrahim from the University of Michigan. He's a surgeon and researcher with a background in architecture. In certain cases, like with wildfire smoke, it may make sense to use an indoor air purifier. Or...

IBRAHIM: For homes with air conditioners, you have a filter that you're supposed to be changing regularly.

DANIEL: Like once a year or so. And Ibrahim suggests swapping the default filter out for a better one, like the MERV 13. The third thing you can do is something Katherine Pruitt calls source control.

PRUITT: You know, keeping sources of contaminants out of the indoor environment if you can. That includes pests, mold, pollen.

DANIEL: She says it can be as simple as leaving your dry cleaning outside long enough to air the solvents out. Earlier this year, the Centers for Disease Control updated its recommendations around building ventilation, suggesting that indoor air be exchanged at least five times every hour, which is well above that of the average household. Andrew Ibrahim.

IBRAHIM: There are many infections that we've known for a long time, long before COVID, that transmit through the air. So circulating air reduces the likelihood of it transmitting between people.

DANIEL: OK, I've got one final tip for you, and it concerns a potentially high-pollution activity you might even be doing right now. Come with me to Cambridge, Mass., to meet John Macomber.

(SOUNDBITE OF GRAVEL CRUNCHING)

JOHN MACOMBER: And this was Julia Child's house here.

DANIEL: He's showing me around his neighborhood. And then he stops in front of his 6,000 square foot colonial.

MACOMBER: We're remodeling to be both energy-efficient and to think a lot about indoor air quality, both around chemicals and around ventilation.

DANIEL: Macomber is a lecturer at the Harvard Business School and used to run a construction company. He admits the mechanical retrofit of a house this large doesn't run cheap. But he's making a change that more and more people are considering, especially if they're renovating anyway - ripping out the gas lines for heating and for cooking.

MACOMBER: It's kind of strange that people evolved over centuries to have open flames where they live. But having gas in your home means potential gas leaks.

DANIEL: And when you're cooking...

MACOMBER: Unless you have perfect exhaust, then you're going to have particulates and compounds in the house.

DANIEL: If you're not able to jettison your gas lines, there are still things you can do. Make sure you've got a working carbon monoxide detector, and use the microwave, toaster oven or a portable induction cooktop when possible. Ari Daniel, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ari Daniel is a reporter for NPR's Science desk where he covers global health and development.
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