Inside of a room with clean indoor air quality looking out a window with a cityscape and wildfire in the distance

Staying Safe: Indoor Air Quality and Ventilation

Miriam Aczel

Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) describes the quality of the air that circulates inside a building and how it affects people’s comfort and safety. With the average American spending 90 percent of their time indoors, it is important that our built environment supports our health and well-being.

Understanding and limiting sources of air pollution can greatly reduce personal health risks. Both outdoor (e.g., pesticides, vehicle emissions) and indoor sources (e.g., cleaning products, heating and cooling systems, furniture) can introduce harmful gases, chemicals, and pollutants that cause short and long-term health problems. Wildfire smoke is another potential source of air pollution—and with fire season in full swing, there are several steps you can follow to improve your IAQ. 

Stay informed

The Air Quality Index (AQI) is a system developed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that shows the outdoor air quality in your area in real time. The AQI is based on a scale from 0 to 500: the higher the value, the greater the level of air pollution and health concerns. This scale is divided into six color-coded categories that represent different levels of health

concern. These range from green (good air quality), yellow (moderately good), orange (unhealthy for sensitive groups with respiratory diseases), red (unhealthy), and purple (very unhealthy). Knowing your AQI level is important during a wildfire, when air pollution levels change quickly.

Air Quality Index chart, with different colors indicating different air quality levels
Measuring pollution: The AQI is used to track and report local air quality.
Image Credit: Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality

Safer inside

Wildfire smoke contains tiny toxins and particles that can cause severe heart, lung, and respiratory diseases. Health officials recommend staying inside when pollution from wildfire smoke reaches unhealthy levels and the AQI exceeds the orange/red tiers.

During periods of heavy wildfire smoke, air quality is generally better in enclosed spaces. However, unwanted pollutants can still enter buildings through windows, cracks, or heating and cooling systems. Installing high-efficiency air filters on top of heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) openings or setting up balanced ventilation systems can improve IAQ. These ventilation systems are “balanced” because they use separate fans to drive incoming and outflowing air, allowing better control of where the fresh air is drawn from and where the exhaust air is expelled. For example, fresh air can be drawn into spaces that are frequently used like bedrooms or living rooms, and exhaust air can be vented from places like basements or bathrooms.

A person installing a heating, ventilation, and air conditioning filter into a vent on the ceiling
Better ventilation: HVAC filters can reduce air pollution in your home. Credit: Modernize

Here are some key steps you can take to stay safe during wildfire season:

Planning ahead

  1. Have an emergency stock of supplies including non-perishable groceries and medication. N95 respiratory masks are also handy—and know how to use them.
  2. Establish evacuation routes from your home with your family.
  3. Subscribe to the EPA’s EnviroFlash email alerts to stay updated about air quality issues. FEMA’s Wireless Emergency Alerts (and Alertas – Sistema de alerta de emergencias) sends free emergency texts to cell phones within range. You can also submit information on smoke and also receive important safety tips with the EPA’s Smoke Sense app.

If you experience heavy smoke from a nearby wildfire

  1. Avoid going outside. If you’re in your car, close the windows and keep the air on to recirculate.
  2. Follow local news and alerts, as well as instructions from local officials
  3. Reduce other sources of potential air pollution—avoid burning candles or incense; using gas or wood stoves; frying food; and even using a vacuum cleaner
  4. When possible, use N95 respirator masks to prevent smoke inhalation.
  5. Minimize vigorous activity to lower your breathing rate and reduce the amount of smoke you inhale.
A person wearing a mask surrounded by wildfire smoke near Golden Gate Bridge
A smoggy SF: Wildfire Smoke in San Francisco, Sept. 10, 2020
Image Credit: Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

Flex Your Power

Be prepared for Flex Alerts, or a call for consumers to voluntarily reduce electricity usage during key times, (e.g., if there is an energy shortage). Flex Alerts usually occur during the summer, when warmer weather increases electricity and leads to reduced power supply. Sign up to receive notifications when a planned Flex Alert is issued. By reducing non-essential use of electricity during a Flex Alert, you can help prevent power outages.

Flex Alerts are similar to Public Safety Power Shutoffs (PSPS): both are planned power outages that occur in response to severe weather conditions. Whereas a PSPS aims to minimize wildfire risk, Flex Alerts aim to shift electricity use to “off-peak” times, generally outside the hours of 4-9 pm.

Taking these steps can help reduce your exposure to air pollution and prepare you for wildfire season. The EcoBlock team aims to improve the indoor air quality of participating homes and keep power on during an outage.


Cover image credit: Anna Haefele

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