Improving air quality this Earth Day
Air pollution is an “invisible threat” that most people don’t consider in their day-to-day lives, yet it is an issue that affects people around the world in substantial ways. Air pollution can greatly impact the human respiratory system as well as the nervous system, brain, kidneys, liver, and other organs, and it accounts for an estimated 7 million deaths per year. Environmental effects of poor air quality may manifest in ecosystem damage, reduction of crop yield, acid rain, and exacerbation of climate change through the release of pollutants like carbon dioxide.
Many individuals and the media tend to focus on air quality only when it becomes exceptionally poor, such as during wildfires, but the benefits of improved air quality can be reaped year-round. To further explore the vast impact that air quality has on human and environmental health, particularly coupled with the impacts of a changing climate, check out our blog on the relationship between air pollution and climate change.
While Earth Day serves as a reminder of the role that air quality plays in our lives and our health, we can strive for and celebrate clean air every day. To help you take the first step toward cleaner air, we have pulled together some recommendations on actions that individuals and organizations can take to improve air quality on a day-to-day basis.
The top 5 ways that individuals can improve air quality
1. Clean and change your home air filter as necessary
While ambient air quality may be outside of your immediate control, you have a great deal of control over the indoor air quality inside your own home. In addition to keeping a clean indoor environment with adequate air ventilation, using an air filter in the home can significantly improve indoor air quality. This may consist of a portable filter and/or an updated filter in a home’s HVAC system which removes some, though not all, of pollutants found in the home. The EPA’s Guide to Air Cleaners in the Home is a great resource on the use and selection of home air filters.
2. Take alternative methods of transportation when possible
By walking, biking, or carpooling to their destination, individuals can reduce the release of vehicle emissions that pollute the air. Choosing to group all errands into a single trip and grouping all online orders into one batch during the week also helps to cut down on these transportation-related emissions.
3. Using environmentally safe, natural home cleaning products
While having a clean home helps ensure good indoor air quality, many household cleaning products can release pollutants such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), greenhouse gases, and toxic air pollutants, either by directly releasing them or by creating these compounds as a byproduct after reacting with the surrounding air. Consumers can choose safer cleaning products—such as those certified under the EPA's “Safer Choice” standard—to limit indoor air pollution.
Keeping rugs and carpets clean also supports better indoor air quality, as they can act as air filters by collecting dust and other particles in the home, removing them from the air.
4. Create an air quality garden
Adding more plants—specifically, those which research has found remove certain air pollutants—to one’s yard can be helpful in fighting outdoor air pollution.
Different plants can help lower pollutant levels in their surroundings. For example, plants with waxy or hairy leaves, such as the yarrow plant, have been found to reduce particulates by 60% and nitrogen dioxide by up to 40%, according to a 2018 study about low-emission gardens in partnership with the Museum of London. Other plants may be helpful in monitoring air quality, such as the red elder plant, which exhibits damage to its leaves and growth when exposed to high levels of ozone.
Using plants as a structural means to protect against air pollution may also be helpful. Dense hedges which are planted adjacent to a road have been found to reduce particle deposits, especially at the breathing height of children, according to some research.
More information on creating an air quality garden can be found here.
5. Choose electric over gas or biomass
By favoring electrically powered items, such as yard tools, individuals can reduce the release of air pollutants. Tools like gas lawn mowers release carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide, both of which have harmful effects on human health. Gas lawn mowers also release significant amounts of carbon dioxide, contributing to climate change.
Carbon emissions from gas-powered sources can also be cut down by switching to a hybrid or zero-emission vehicle and reducing natural gas combustion.
When it comes to cooking, electric stoves offer benefits compared to gas stoves. In fact, the EPA states that indoor pollution levels can be 2 to 5 times higher, and sometimes even 100 times higher, than outdoor pollution levels—yet, the pollutant release from gas stoves faces no federal regulation. A gas stove can release fine particulate matter (PM 2.5)—even when no food is being cooked—as well as nitrogen oxide, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, and formaldehyde. Even low-level exposure to these pollutants can be harmful, particularly for respiratory health, but choosing an electric stove eliminates this source of indoor air pollution and its associated risks.
Choosing electric sources of heating over a wood fireplace is also beneficial to indoor and outdoor air quality. When wood is burned, PM 2.5 is released into the air, which can trigger asthma attacks, heart attacks, strokes, and other harmful health effects. A variety of other pollutants, including volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and nitrogen oxides, are associated with wood burning as well. Because natural gas heaters release many of the same pollutants, using electrically powered heating is a safer choice.
Wood burning also accounts for detrimental effects on regional air quality. The Bay Area Air Quality Management District finds that during winter weather conditions, wood smoke accounts for the largest portion of fine particulate matter in the region—approximately 39%. In the South Coast Air Quality Management District, the region’s 1.2 million wood-burning devices emit an average of 5 tons of particulate matter per day and more than 10 tons per day in the winter, when wood-burning is at its peak.
To solidify their commitment to taking sustained action for cleaner air, individuals can take the Clean Air Pledge, as created by the Coalition for Clean Air. In addition to taking individual action, citizens can also organize awareness-building events in their communities and encourage greater community participation in improving air quality—an issue that affects us all.
Individuals can take the Clean Air Day pledge here.
The top 5 ways that organizations can improve air quality
1. Allow employees to work from home
While many businesses have begun work-from-home operations since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, allowing employees to work from home on a regular basis reduces the number of cars on the road, especially the number driven by solo individuals while commuting to and from work each day. Telework also requires less energy to heat, cool, and light office buildings and power office equipment.
2. Encourage the use of alternative means of transportation
When remote work is not possible, businesses can encourage employees to choose alternative means of transportation that are more environmentally friendly: walking, biking, public transportation, and carpooling. A British clean air campaign found that eliminating even 1 out of 5 cars on the road for business purposes equates to 11 billion miles saved per year in the U.K.—the equivalent amount of emissions as two airports. This would correspond to a 3.3 million ton reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in the UK alone.
3. Clean and replace building air filters as needed
Installing, cleaning, and replacing air filters in office buildings promotes cleaner indoor air, especially in a place where people spend many hours each day. The EPA has also released a guide on further practices that can be taken to improve air quality in the workplace, such as disposing of garbage correctly, storing food properly, and managing possible pollutant sources like pest control and construction within the complex.
4. Implement a business sustainability plan
Businesses can implement more sustainable practices by looking at the emissions released from their own and their suppliers’ practices. This may include finding ways to shift unsustainable practices to more environmentally friendly ones, like using cleaner energy sources, though actions will vary depending on the type of business.
By prioritizing environmental sustainability across the organization, such as by encouraging environmental stewardship among employees, businesses and other organizations can ensure awareness and attention to environmental issues year-round.
5. Plan employee volunteer efforts and outreach for environmental groups
Businesses can set dedicated employee time to give back to environmental and community groups which are working to fight air pollution. By reaching out to their local air quality organizations, businesses and employees can directly engage with the efforts in their own community. The EPA also offers volunteer partnership programs to help reduce air pollution in certain sectors.
Community-based air monitoring efforts can be a powerful tool to make a local difference in air pollution, the associated health outcomes, and public education and awareness about the issue. One such example is Brightline Defense, which works to empower their San Francisco communities with access to actionable air quality data.
Businesses and organizations can take the Clean Air Pledge to demonstrate their commitment to clean air and greater environmental health. By implementing more sustainable practices, managing air quality in their office space, and engaging employees in their environmental sustainability plans, businesses and other organizations can ensure they are consistently working towards cleaner air and a healthier planet.
Organizations can take the Clean Air Day pledge here.
Lasting change for air quality requires day-to-day commitment
By choosing to take action year-round, individuals and businesses alike can implement more sustainable practices that create a lasting impact on air quality. Whether this means changing transportation habits, choosing more environmentally friendly products, keeping air filtration systems up-to-date, or ensuring that the environment is factored into organizational decisions, considering air quality in day-to-day decision-making is an essential step on the path to a collective future of cleaner air.