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When Your House Was Built May Determine How Well It Keeps Out Wildfire Smoke

A residential neighborhood in Portland, Oregon thick with wildfire smoke.
A residential neighborhood in Portland, Oregon thick with wildfire smoke.

News Brief

There's growing evidence that the traditional public health advice of staying indoors during smoky days is not enough to stay safe. Smoke and its particulate matter are getting into our homes, schools, and office buildings.

And if you're worried about what that means for where you live, it may depend on when your building was built. That's according to a study by University of California, Berkeley, researchers, published this month in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The researchers used crowdsourced data from indoor and outdoor air sensors in California to get a better idea of how protected residents are from hazardous air.

The study's senior author, Allen Goldstein, a professor of environmental engineering and of environmental science, policy and management, said they found that newer buildings and those constructed with central air conditioning were much better at keeping wildfire smoke out.

"Houses that were built more recently, in particular, tend to be tighter, they tend to be less leaky," he explained. Additionally, he said houses with air conditioning tend to circulate air through a filter.

The study also found that human behavior can play a significant role in indoor air quality. For instance, when people closed up their doors and windows and used some kind of filtration system, the amount of fine, inhalable, particulate matter (PM 2.5) dropped by half.

Either way, once smoke gets inside, Goldstein said it needs to be dealt with. That means either using an air purifier with a true HEPA filter, or an air conditioning filter with the proper rating.

In a press release, co-author Joshua Apte said the researchers are hoping to sample indoor air quality data across a more economically "diverse array of households," since existing crowdsourced indoor air data tends to come from more affluent households.

"I think that these new methods of sensing the indoor environment are going to allow us to grapple a lot more with questions of environmental justice and find out more about who gets to breathe cleaner air indoors," Apte said.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Maggie Mullen is Wyoming Public Radio's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau. Her work has aired on NPR, Marketplace, Science Friday, and Here and Now. She was awarded a 2019 regional Edward R. Murrow Award for her story on the Black 14.

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