We’ve been shut-ins lately. Windows closed. Shades drawn.
Without AC during this heat wave, it’s the only way to keep the house from feeling like an oven. Lock in the cool; keep out the heat.
We’ve also been avoiding the outdoors, as though some toxic cloud, threatening our lives, loomed over our house or something.
Ohhh, that’s right, there was a toxic cloud, threatening our lives, looming over our house.
And it wasn’t just over our house, but over our whole city.
You could smell it. The acrid stench of toxic chemicals. A gauzy cloud settling over the rooftops.
It’s called smog, “a photochemical haze caused by the action of solar ultraviolet radiation on atmosphere polluted with hydrocarbons and oxides of nitrogen, especially from automobile exhaust,” according to Merriam-Webster.
In English, smog is all the crappy fumes from cars, trucks and factories, gathering into a cloud. That cloud creates a tent in the sky, trapping us underneath so that we wind up breathing in all the other exhaust that cars and trucks keep emitting, all the chemicals factories continue to burn into the air.
And on spectacularly sunny days, all those crappy fumes come out to party like college frat guys on Spring break.
When smog and sunshine mix, AirNow, a national program of the EPA, issues an Air Quality Action Alert.
You hear it announced on the radio, or you see my screenshots on Facebook.
AirNow keeps tabs on the pollution levels of cities across America through their Air Quality Index (AQI), which “tells you how clean or polluted your outdoor air is, along with associated health effects that may be of concern.”
Healthline.com explains that, “The AQI ranks air quality from zero to 300. Levels above 150 are considered unhealthy for anyone, and levels above 200 are considered very unhealthy. These exposure levels correspond to red and purple colors on the index, respectively.”
For the past week, AirNow has gauged my area as level Orange, clocking the air in Pittsburgh at a wheeze-inducing 110.
I get Air Quality Action Alerts delivered straight to my email inbox on days when the air hits dangerous levels, and you can sign up to receive them, too.
It’s important to know when levels are high, because Healthline, the EPA, National Institutes of Health and every decent doctor in the world agree: smog-plus-sunshine equals poisonous junk in our lungs.
This cocktail makes us cough, irritates our breathing, gives us sore throats, worsens asthma symptoms and can even trigger full-on asthma attacks.
That’s why it’s so important for young people, whose organs are just developing; or old people, whose organs may be compromised; or sick people, whose organs are at risk, to avoid going outside on high-level days.
For healthy adults, it’s still not advisable to hang around outside for long—especially not to engage in strenuous exercise.
Not even Scott Pruitt has abolished the EPA’s AirNow program, yet, so I guess it’s fair to say that even climate deniers like him have admitted it’s dangerous to inhale our air, sometimes.
See, when there’s a smog tent looming over us (imagine an ordinary frat party under way, e.g.) but it’s also super sunny, the sunshine makes car exhaust and factory pollution come out to party hard core, like frat guys, gone wild and shirtless on the campus lawn, and bad ozone is created.
Ergo, the threat ensues.
“But wait!” you might be saying, “I thought ozone was a good thing! Al Gore keeps telling me we burned a hole through the ozone layer. Don’t we need ozone to protect us from harmful UV rays or something?”
Hold your horses. There are two kinds of ozone: good ozone and bad ozone.
And this is why no one listens to climate scientists.
Dear Climate Scientists,
Here’s the deal with the bad stuff—a.k.a. “ground level ozone”—definition approved per Pruitt & Co.:
“Tropospheric, or ground level ozone, is not emitted directly into the air, but is created by chemical reactions between oxides of nitrogen (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOC). This happens when pollutants emitted by cars, power plants, industrial boilers, refineries, chemical plants, and other sources chemically react in the presence of sunlight. Ozone at ground level is a harmful air pollutant, because of its effects on people and the environment, and it is the main ingredient in ‘smog.’”
We humans make conditions worse by doing innocent, everyday stuff, like filling our cars with gasoline during daylight hours.
Gasoline vaporizes, releasing these so called ‘volatile organic compounds’, or VOCs, mentioned above in the definition by Pruitt & Co. VOCs are hazardous to human health, according to the National Institutes of Health’s Tox Town.
As such, we should avoid filling up on gas during Air Quality Action Days, at least while the sun is shining, because all the gunky fumes from our gas tanks, which normally evaporate quickly, get trapped-and-zapped by smog+sun, and they start acting like predatory drunken frat guys again.
Rather than inviting those frat guys to stage-dive off of rooftops, six-pack in hand, it’s best to save your trip to the gas station until after sundown.
It’s also wise to not cut your grass on Air Quality Action Days, or paint your house, seal your deck, change your oil, spray paint your garden gnomes, burn your trash, spray weed killer, light your backyard fire pit, get your clothes dry-cleaned, or plug in air fresheners.
All of these activities, says NIH’s Tox Town, release more bad VOCs—ones like “benzene, formaldehyde, solvents such as toluene and xylene, styrene, and perchloroethylene (or tetrachloroethylene), the main solvent used in dry cleaning,” into the air.
Using them only makes bad ozone worse (i.e., they make frat guys forget that “no” means “no”).
And, according to the EPA, bad ozone extends six miles above the ground.
Good ozone, the kind Al Gore is talking about, only begins there. It “extends upward from about 6 to 30 miles and protects life on Earth from the sun's harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays,” says the EPA.
Unfortunately, even Scott Pruitt seems to agree, good ozone is “gradually being destroyed by man-made chemicals referred to as ozone-depleting substances (ODS), including chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), halons, methyl bromide, carbon tetrachloride, and methyl chloroform. These substances were formerly used and sometimes still are used in coolants, foaming agents, fire extinguishers, solvents, pesticides, and aerosol propellants. Once released into the air these ozone-depleting substances degrade very slowly. In fact, they can remain intact for years as they move through the troposphere until they reach the stratosphere. There they are broken down by the intensity of the sun's UV rays and release chlorine and bromine molecules, which destroy the ‘good’ ozone. Scientists estimate that one chlorine atom can destroy 100,000 ‘good’ ozone molecules.”
See the connection? One hammered frat guy can ruin an entire college campus’s reputation for years.
If you’re concerned about air pollution and are worried you might be contributing to it, there are tons of organizations across the world working to combat it that you can sign up to support and learn from.
Where I live, Smell PGH “crowdsources smell reports so we can track how pollutants travel through the air across Pittsburgh.” They say that, “If your air smells toxic, then it is possible that you are inhaling toxins.” Download the app and start sniffing!
GASP, the Group Against Smog and Pollution, is “a non-profit citizens' group in Southwestern Pennsylvania working for a healthy, sustainable environment. Founded in 1969, GASP has been a diligent watchdog, educator, litigator, and policy-maker on many environmental issues, with a focus on air quality in the Pittsburgh region.”
Donate money. Attend rallies. Vote!
More orgs like these exist across America, but all you really need to do to get started in your fight against pollution is to reduce the gunky fumes you could be emitting into the atmosphere.
Take a long, hard look at the VOC-packed household chemicals you may be using every day: Do you enjoy artificial air fresheners, smelly candles or perfume fragrances? Do you sprinkle lawn-care additives to get emerald-green grass? Pesticides to eradicate garden bugs?
These items are chockful of junk we shouldn’t use, if we want cleaner air.
So do an inventory. Read the ingredients on the products you use. Stop using them, especially on Air Quality Action Days, and help us all breathe a little easier.