Sign In or Create an Account.

By continuing, you agree to the Terms of Service and acknowledge our Privacy Policy

Lifestyle

When There’s Smoke, Getting Indoors Isn’t Enough

Some interiors are quite protected from air pollution. Others aren’t.

Smoke in an apartment.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

As the Northeast endures one of the worst wildfire days in recent history, the advice has been pretty simple: stay indoors, filter your air. And chances are, people who can follow this advice are getting it.

Marshall Burke, an economist at the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability who has been remarkably helpful to this publication, has looked at past examples of severe smoke events and found there isn’t any big demographic gaps in who is seeking out information about what’s going on and how to respond. “On days like this, we actually see evidence that most folks are seeking out information,” Burke told me, “We can look at Google searches in English, we can look at Spanish, we can look in different zip codes. And we see pretty similar searches. Folks notice that things are bad, and they search for information.”

What people can do with that information is where the disparities start to show up.

There are essentially two levels of response to the kind of smoke New York is experiencing now or California has experienced in the past few years: whether you’re inside or outside, and what’s happening to the air inside your home or another building.

Burke’s research has shown that even indoor air quality can still be quite bad during a wildfire — something that is at least anecdotally confirmed today (I am writing this from my bedroom. My office and living room have older, leakier windows and have been abandoned to the smoke).

“Indoors, especially at the levels that New York City is seeing today, you'll see substantial infiltration of smoke into indoor environments. And so you need active mechanical filtration to get the rest of that smoke out,” Burke said.

Citing data from indoor air monitors sold by Purple, which then creates maps of air quality, Burke warned that “right now in New York, I was just looking, they're quite high,” referring to particulate concentration, “so I think that should make us pretty worried about how much of this stuff gets inside and for those who can to really double down on filtration.”

That’s typically achieved by buying air filters, which can run up to hundreds of dollars per device and may require multiple devices in a single home. There can also be runs on these devices during smoke events. My local hardware store, for example, was out of them and Amazon wasn’t delivering several recommended brands until Friday.

Get the best of Heatmap delivered to your inbox:

* indicates required
  • When Burke and a team of researchers analyzed air quality data in the Bay Area in 2020, they found that concentrations of particulate matter inside homes were not related to how smokey it was outside. The homes they looked at "experienced nearly identical daily outdoor concentrations" on bad smoke days, but indoor pollution was "starkly different." Some homes saw concentrations of particulates more than five times the World Health Organization recommended limit while others were able to keep the concentration levels at one third the WHO limit.

    Burke and the researchers found that wealthier households “can more easily stay home, are more likely to seek information on protective technology, and are more likely to own indoor pollution monitors.” In short, the public health advice you’re hearing now from elected officials is more likely to be followed — and easier to follow — for the wealthy.

    Burke pointed to programs in California that provide air filters to low-income households as well as to ways people could construct their own filters. All you need is a fan and some MERV filters. “it works surprisingly well,” Burke said.

    He also pointed to the need to outfit schools and homeless shelters with filtration. “We're going to need to make those investments. Of course, we can't do that today. But this will happen again, and we could be more prepared.”

    Yellow
    Matthew Zeitlin profile image

    Matthew Zeitlin

    Matthew is a correspondent at Heatmap. Previously he was an economics reporter at Grid, where he covered macroeconomics and energy, and a business reporter at BuzzFeed News, where he covered finance. He has written for The New York Times, the Guardian, Barron's, and New York Magazine.

    Politics

    Why Republicans Grilled the Energy Secretary About UFOs

    You have to get creative when you allege a “war on energy” during an oil boom.

    Jennifer Granholm and UFOs.
    Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

    When Donald Trump met with a group of oil executives at Mar-a-Lago last month, his message was somewhere between “refreshingly blunt” and “blatant shakedown.” Attendees spilled to The Washington Post that Trump told the executives they should raise a billion dollars for his campaign so he could make them even richer by reducing their taxes and removing regulations on their industry.

    One can’t help but wonder if any of them thought to themselves that as appealing as that kind of deal might be, there’s no reason for them to be desperate. After all, the Biden years have actually been quite good for the fossil fuel industry.

    Keep reading...Show less
    Blue
    Politics

    Biden’s Long Game on Climate

    The president isn’t trying to cut emissions as fast possible. He’s doing something else.

    President Biden playing chess.
    Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

    Here’s the problem with President Joe Biden’s climate policy: From a certain point of view, it makes no sense.

    Take his electricity policy. At the top level, Biden has committed to eliminating greenhouse-gas pollution from the power sector by 2035. He wants to accomplish this largely by making clean energy cheaper — that’s the goal of the Inflation Reduction Act, of course — and he has also changed federal rules so it’s slightly easier to build power lines and large-scale renewable projects. He has also added teeth to that goal in the form of new Environmental Protection Agency rules cracking down on coal and natural gas.

    Keep reading...Show less
    Green
    Technology

    AM Briefing: Greenlight for Geoengineering?

    On the return of geoengineering, climate lawsuits, and a cheaper EV.

    Sunrise over a mountain.
    Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

    Current conditions: Battered Midwest in for more bad weather this weekend • Tornadoes keep hitting the Great Plains • A heat wave in New Delhi that pushed temperatures above 116 degrees Fahrenheit on Friday is expected to last several more days.

    THE TOP FIVE

    1. Red states challenge climate lawsuits

    Nineteen Republican-led states are asking the Supreme Court to stop Democrat-led states from trying to force oil and gas companies to pay for the impacts of climate change. Rhode Island in 2018 became the first state to sue major oil companies for climate damages and has since been joined by California, Connecticut, Minnesota, and New Jersey. The states pursuing legal action against oil companies are trying to “dictate the future of the American energy industry,” the Republican attorneys general argued in a motion filed this week, “not by influencing federal legislation or by petitioning federal agencies, but by imposing ruinous liability and coercive remedies on energy companies” through the court system.

    Keep reading...Show less