We're Sick of Getting Sick All The Time. Clean The Air.
Join the revolution.
When my daughter started preschool last year, I was terrified. We'd spent two years largely in isolation, waiting for the FDA to finally approve vaccines for her age group.
We'd watched with horror as one study after another slowly revealed that vaccines do almost nothing to protect you against the strokes, heart attacks, and brain damage that can follow a mild Covid infection. One of my friends lost her husband to a post-Covid heart attack, while pregnant. We didn't really know what to do.
Did I mention I was terrified?
Out of desperation, I started reading about HEPA purifiers. We brought one to the director of my daughter's school. He didn't know what they were, but he reluctantly agreed to use it.
There was so much I didn't know.
Where was the best place to put it? Was one going to be enough? How did I know it was going to work? How would we keep curious little toddlers from messing with the buttons?
I turned to Twitter, and that's where I found resources like It's Airborne. A few weeks later, I was getting a better grasp on concepts like airflow and clean air delivery rates. I learned how determine what actually makes a good air purifier. I started learning how to figure out how many air changes per hour we needed for different size rooms. I knew to take my questions to HVAC specialists and indoor air quality (IAQ) experts, often the same people who work on your AC and heating.
I wasn't terrified anymore. I felt like I knew what I was doing. I started making a big, organized folder. You can click on "more" to see the links organized by topic:
As many of us have said, parents and teachers shouldn't have to shoulder yet another burden when we're already overworked and exhausted. On the other hand, nothing's going to change if we don't speak up. The science has been clear for years now, but the message isn't getting through. We have to be louder. We have to help other parents and teachers understand.
As I told our preschool director, I'm happy to maintain air purifiers and build DIY kits for them so they don't have to worry about it. But I also need them to acknowledge the importance of clean air. As I told them, "My child cannot be in a room without clean air, ever."
There's still frustrations. A few weeks ago, I found one air purifier turned around backward, shoved up against a wall. (It was still on.) The staff at our school send out mass text messages reminding us not to use peanut butter on their lunches, but they confess to me that clean air isn't always at the front of their minds. So I have to navigate that.
I'm learning as I go.
As for keeping toddlers away from the buttons, we sized strips of cardboard and taped it over the controls.
It seems to work.
Everyone's sick of getting sick
Liesl McConchie did something that takes a lot of guts.
She went to a school board meeting.
Have you ever been to one of these things? They can get heated, especially now that almost everything about education has been politicized. Everyone drags all of their stress and anxiety with them. They often show up with lots of problems, and no clear solutions.
It just so happened that teachers, parents, and principals were there complaining about the millions of dollars they'd lost on poor attendance. Unless you live in a cave (and that sounds nice these days), you know that schools across the world are struggling with the same thing. Students are sick. Teachers are sick. Parents are sick. Everyone's miserable, even if they're doing their best to hide it behind fake smiles and small talk. Some school districts are even adding a month to the school year to make up for the learning loss that's happening.
Liesl showed them something amazing:
She explained why everyone was so sick. They were breathing dirty air filled with germs. Even better, she offered them a cheap solution. Even fancy clean air systems cost a fraction of what schools and businesses are pouring into retention while bleeding money on sick days.
The superintendent set up a meeting with Liesl, where she convinced them to start moving forward on a plan.
Here's what she told them.
You could call Liesl part of the clean air revolution, a growing group of scientists and advocates trying to wake up the public about the urgent need to get better ventilation and filtration in our spaces, especially the ones where large groups of people get together. You know: schools, restaurants, offices, concerts, gyms, airports, and "gentlemen's clubs."
The movement is gaining ground.
Some cities like Boston have already deployed sophisticated air-cleaning systems and air quality monitors in their public schools. They did it because parents and teachers teamed up with nonprofits to get the job done. They pushed.
Groups like Indoor Air Quality Advocates are building local, regional, and national networks to do the same. They're like the Koch Network, but instead of doing evil, they do good.
Companies like Clean Air Kits are changing the game by offering quiet, affordable PC Fan filters and quick guides on how to use them. Startups like the Air Support Project are taking the CR box into commercial territory, to make them more accessible and to clear the red tape that often keeps them out of schools. Other companies like SmartAir are providing people with portable air purifiers when they need extra protection.
Consumer Reports explains how air purifiers work and tests the most popular brands. Groups like the Clean Air Crew have posted multiple tutorials on clean air, including buying guides. Confused parents and teachers can also visit Clean Air Stars to find affordable, reliable filters.
It's the new frontier of public health.
Clean air nerds of the world, unite
Many of these researchers gathered at the Clean Air Expo, a virtual conference hosted by the World Health Network, where experts and advocates shared their knowledge and strategies for getting the public on board with the message. I sat through every minute.
(You can watch the stream here.)
It's hard work to clean the air, but it's meaningful.
We're often working against public health institutions like the CDC. They should be on our side, but they almost always seem to focus more on what's politically and economically expedient instead of what's best for us and our kids. While they once tried to combat misinformation, they now propagate it widely by insisting that people get sick because they don't wash their hands.
Look, you should wash your hands.
The majority of research on infection now shows that aerosolized particles spread diseases. An environmental engineer named Linsey Marr won a MacArthur genius grant for spearheading this research and bringing it to everyone's attention. There's a piece about her in Wired.
We now have lots and lots of evidence that we should be installing air purifiers and upgrading our HVAC wherever possible.
So why aren't we?
We're tired of being tired
The Biden administration gave billions of dollars to states for the explicit purpose of upgrading their air quality. Instead, the most conservative states refused to spend the money out of misdirected ideology. They considered it "wasteful spending." There weren't strict guidelines on how to spend the cash, so school districts in other states treated it like a slush fund. They spent it on everything except clean air.
By early 2022, politicians essentially gave up.
They lost decisive court battles on vaccine and mask mandates. The media manufactured a narrative that Omicron was so contagious it was pointless to resist infection. Then Russia invaded Ukraine, and the world's attention shifted to war. Desperate to regain some fleeting sense of normal, the public accepted a new narrative by corporate media that the pandemic was over. They also started to convince everyone that they had mask fatigue.
Clean air is bigger than Covid.
Dirty air doesn't just make you sick. It doesn't just contain germs. It contains high amounts of C02. That makes it harder to concentrate. It makes you sleepy. Dirty air can also contain all kinds of pollutants and toxins.
Cleaning the air makes everyone healthier. It can reduce or even eliminate someone's worst asthma problems.
It saves money.
Not every city or country reacts the same to clean air advocates. I've had success at my daughter's preschool, but my university doesn't listen to a word I say about anything, much less air quality. They're letting me teach online for now, but that luck could run out at any time.
Some days, I'm tired.
Of course, we can't use fatigue as an excuse to cop out on something as important as clean air. As the research shows, breathing dirty air doesn't help. It just gets you sick all the time. It makes you more tired.
So we have to solve the problem.
Then we can rest.
The super rich understand all of this
Do you know who understands the value of clean air?
They don't even keep it a secret. Magazines like Forbes have even run articles detailing all of the precautions that the elite take at their fancy conferences and luxury vacations. You don't have to be rich to breathe clean air, but it definitely helps, and nobody gives you flack about it.
They know what Covid does to your body and your brain, even if they're telling the newspapers they own to downplay the risk. So do most of our politicians. They've already spent kagillions of dollars revamping their buildings with new technologies that kills germs in the air with ultraviolet light. They're using premium HEPA filters.
So how do you clean the air?
That's where the science comes in.
It's a little more complicated than rushing to the store and buying any air purifier. You have to learn a little bit about things like clean air delivery rates (CADR). You have to match air flow rates to the size of the space. You have to think about energy efficiency and scale. You have to decide whether you're going to use HEPA filters from the store or build your own. It can get complicated. That's why you have to do your homework and read the studies.
You don't have to get it perfect. A lot of experts will just come right out and tell you which air purifiers work best and how to set them up.
Here's a list of quick starts:
You can also ask the internet:
Let's face it, most people don't want to think any more about their air than the water that comes out of their faucet. But until clean air becomes as easy as clean water, we're going to have to keep pushing.
You have to keep talking about it. Even after you deliver the air purifiers, you have to show people how to use them and keep them on the right settings. You have to remind them of the benefits.
You have to call restaurants and museums. You have to bug your friends and family. You have to be the weird air purifier person. You have to walk the fine line between prompting and aggravating.
You have to be okay with awkward moments.
It can also be fun.
It's fun to learn how to build a CR box with PC fans. It's fun to learn how to test air purifiers yourself. It's a cool science project.
It's about the future
Teachers like me are no stranger to inequality in the school system. We know that private and charter schools get the best resources. They get e-textbooks on tablets, while other schools get nothing at all. Clean air is turning into yet another thing that privileged kids get that the rest of us don't, except now the stakes are even higher.
Think about it.
Rich kids at schools with plenty of funding are going to grow up breathing cleaner air. They're going to get fewer Covid infections. They're going to miss fewer school days. So will their teachers. That's going to translate into better grades and higher test scores. From there, those kids are going to get into better colleges and get better jobs.
Poor kids at underfunded schools will grow up breathing dirty air. They'll face multiple Covid infections a year. The science already tells us what that'll do to them. From there, they're going to earn worse grades and score lower and lower on tests. They'll have a harder time getting into college. They'll wind up in dead end jobs. They still won't get clean air.
Does that sound fair?
Even from an economic angle, clean air makes sense. Our economy loses billions of dollars a year on sick days. Viral infections lead to chronic illness. They even contribute to heart disease and cancer. If we just cleaned the air, it would pay for itself in the long run. Nobody would have to accept constant illness as the price for living the kind of life they want.
It would be profitable.
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