Clean air has value beyond COVID-19, the wildfire smoke shows us

I left some free masks outside my apartment for my neighbors this week. That orange tint on the photo is from the poor air quality in NYC.

This week, much of the eastern U.S. was inundated with wildfire smoke that traveled south from Canada. While fires have been blazing across the country for several weeks, some recent particularly-intense wildfires in Quebec led to smoke so full of pollutants, it set poor air quality records in the U.S.

Americans living in California and other Western states have grown accustomed to wildfire smoke over the last few years; you might remember the orange skies over West Coast cities in fall 2020. But for people on the East Coast (myself included), this week’s smoke was a rude reminder that climate disasters have no borders or boundaries.

The smoke also reminded us how important clean air is for our health. The same public health measures that help reduce COVID-19 risk can also reduce the impacts of wildfire smoke. High-quality masks filter out both the pollution in smoke and coronavirus particles at the individual level; ventilation improvements do this at the collective level. And these health measures help with other respiratory viruses, other types of pollution, chronic conditions like asthma… the list goes on.

For COVID-cautious folks like me who still wear masks in public spaces, the smoke situation this week demonstrated that yes, many people are willing to put a mask on if they understand why it’s needed—and if the masks are widely available. In New York City this week, I saw more people wearing masks than I have since the height of the Omicron wave in winter 2021-2022. Public officials encouraged masking and even gave out masks in large numbers.

In addition to broader mask use, more people have become interested in cleaning the air in their homes and in public spaces. Air filter sales spiked on Amazon this week, CNN reported, as did Google searches for these items. My Twitter feed has been full of recommendations for air-cleaning devices and instructions for building DIY filters.

This is all great to see, but I hope it’s not just a one-week trend. If we invest in cleaner air now—both individually and collectively—we’ll be more prepared for the next round of wildfire smoke. (While the worst has likely passed for now, we’re likely to see more events like this in the future.) And we’ll be more protected against COVID-19 and other respiratory diseases.

With that in mind, here are some suggestions that apply to both COVID-19 and air pollution:

  • Stock up on high-quality masks, i.e. N95s and KN95s. This STAT article has some helpful information about which masks work well for COVID-19 protection as compared to air pollution. Notably, for COVID-19 protection, it’s more important to mask inside, while for air pollution protection, it’s more important to mask outside.
  • Buy or make air filters for your home. Air filters can dramatically improve air quality in an indoor space, and you don’t have to spend hundreds of dollars to get one. Corsi-Rosenthal boxes can be easily constructed with less than $100 of materials.
  • Monitor your local air quality. This can include buying a monitor to measure CO2 or pollutants, or following air quality data through public sources. I’ve personally started checking, a site run by the U.S. government, and IQAir, a crowdsourced air quality tracking site. Checking local air quality data can inform your behavioral choices, similar to checking local COVID-19 statistics.
  • Get involved with mask distribution. This week has shown many people are willing to put on a mask, if they understand why it’s needed and can access one. You can help share information and resources, whether that’s getting involved with a mask distribution group in your area or simply donating individually to friends and neighbors. (For example, I left some free masks outside my apartment building this week.)
  • Advocate for clean air in public spaces. Public buildings can do a lot to improve their air, such as updating HVAC systems and adding air filters to high-traffic spaces. There are already many groups advocating for this, such as parents organizing for ventilation upgrades at their kids’ schools; I hope the recent wildfire smoke adds new motivation to those efforts.

Do you have other suggestions or resources that you’d like to share with other COVID-19 Data Dispatch readers? Email me, and I’ll send your suggestions in a future newsletter issue.

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