Cooking with gasPeople on the West Coast are getting familiar with the hazards of airborne particulate matter. The tiny particles found in smoke, whether from a wildfire or from something burning in the kitchen, sail through your nose and into your lungs, contributing to asthma, heart disease, and lung problems. Home cooking is generally healthier than eating out, nutritionally, but it’s worse when it comes to breathing (unless maybe all you’re doing is chopping vegetables for salads). High-heat cooking can be especially bad. Roasting a pan of brussel sprouts in a gas oven, for example, can temporarily stir up levels of fine particulate matter in your home on par with the air of the worst polluted cities in the world. A report from King’s College London in May found that households were cooking an extra hour per day during the pandemic, exposing them to 19 percent more particulate pollution. Gas stoves are notoriously bad. A study from earlier this year in California found that cooking over a gas stove for an hour led to concentrations of nitrogen dioxide that exceeded state and federal air quality standards. Nitrogen dioxide contributes to smog, and it can lead to respiratory problems and more emergency rooms visits. “Cooking is very definitely a dominant source of pollution in residential indoor environments,” Farmer said. For periods of bad wildfire smoke, officials recommend that people who are sensitive to smoke keep nonperishable groceries on hand that don’t require cooking.
Bleached outMany workplaces have regimented cleaning schedules to decrease the chance of spreading coronavirus. Some gyms take midday breaks just to sanitize everything, and stores are cleaning break rooms a lot more regularly. It’s appropriate to keep things clean during a pandemic, but the overuse of some harsh products can contribute to hazards in the air. “I definitely have concerns about the safety of people in work environments with heavy cleaning product use,” Farmer said. It’s not that all “chemicals” are bad. Researchers haven’t found that pine-scented or natural product cleaners, for instance, create much in the way of toxic compounds, Farmer said. “Your nose is a pretty good guideline as to how toxic some of these cleaning products are,” she said. “You know, bleach is a pretty obnoxious scent and it also has some pretty obnoxious chemistry … In and of itself, it’s not too bad, but it reacts with surfaces in your homes and things in your air and makes an array of toxic products.”
Your house, our problemWhile outdoor air is clearly a shared resource, indoor air seems like a private matter. That’s not exactly the case, said Nwanaji-Enwerem, the health scientist at Harvard. “The smoke that’s produced in one apartment can definitely affect a young kid living in an apartment upstairs or downstairs with asthma,” he said. In a recent paper in the journal Nature, Nwanaji-Enwerem imagines a situation where a young boy with severe asthma has to spend all day at home in a dilapidated apartment building during the lockdowns, getting exposed to mold and secondhand smoke from his neighbors. If that kid has to get rushed to the hospital, it would defeat the main purpose of the stay-at-home orders, which was to keep people from overwhelming the health care system, he argues. This kind of scenario also puts the people most at-risk from COVID-19 complications — older adults, people with preexisting conditions, and people of lower socioeconomic status — at a higher risk of getting exposed to the virus, since they’re also “the most vulnerable to the particles that we find inside as well,” he said. The pandemic has been called a “threat multiplier” because it exacerbates existing inequalities. Low-income households, for instance, often breathe worse indoor air because they tend to live in smaller spaces, have fewer resources to address household maintenance issues, and may also live in areas that are more polluted. “The take-home message for a lot of these environmental health issues is that none of us really exist in isolation — our problems are linked,” Nwanaji-Enwerem said. The cascading disasters, from the pandemic to Hurricane Sally to the wildfires, just makes it all more visible.
This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Smoke and COVID-19 drove us inside — but the air in there wants to kill you on Sep 25, 2020.