Stonewalling Good Air

When I was in high school, my mother joined a group to improve the ventilation on the top floor. That’s where the art classrooms were—they used materials which put out toxic fumes.

This wasn’t for my benefit. I had no classes on that floor.

What most disturbed my mother was that one art teacher was pregnant. After studying the chemicals building up in that air, she believed no pregnant person should work there.

They put together a plan for upgrading the ventilation on that floor. The school district—whose approval was necessary—ignored them. No justification, not even ‘that’s too expensive.’ They refused to acknowledge the problem.

Could they have moved the art classes outside? There was a roofed outdoor area where classes could be held even in rain (a few dance classes were held there). But the wind would’ve blown stuff around.

The ventilation in the entire building was bad, I’m sure. No windows would open, and the school district controlled the vents remotely from a location in a different neighborhood. Just to change the thermostat, teachers had to petition the school district. No, there was one—only one—classroom which had local control. The teachers marveled that they could choose the temperature there.

I wouldn’t trust the school district administrators to keep the vents clean.

Studies show that high carbon dioxide levels impair student learning.

Once in a while, I fell asleep during class. Maybe the classes bored me but… I wonder.

***

I’m a bad driver. That’s one reason I’ve adopted a car-free lifestyle.

When I had a car, I often felt drowsy behind the wheel. It scared me, but not enough to keep me alert.

Drowsy driving causes as many car crashes as drunk driving, I hear.

I thought it was me. Something makes me especially vulnerable to drowsy driving, or maybe there was some trick I didn’t know.

Only recently did I learn that carbon dioxide buildup in cars is common. It takes about 30 minutes for the carbon dioxide levels to make a driver drowsy—and that’s about how long it took for me. I never felt drowsy during short drives.

Maybe the trick I needed was to open the windows. Or get a car with good ventilation. I think I always had the vents on to pull in outside air, but I don’t remember. Those vents were never cleaned, I know that much.

***

Improving ventilation allows people to work better and reduces absences due to sickness. For many employers, improving indoor air quality would save them much more money than good ventilation costs. But employers have to admit it’s a problem first.

***

When articles discuss wildfire pollution, they often pull photos from Orange Sky Day in San Francisco.

The air quality was decent that day. Days with much worse air looked far more ‘normal.’ Photos can’t show the real quality, good or bad, of the air we breathe.

Yet, the trash in the air was obvious enough that people Did Things during the wildfire smoke days in San Francisco. Sometimes it altered the quality of light, such that I could often predict bad air days by examining sunlight. Even when it was invisible, many people felt something wrong in their lungs.

Many people bought HEPA filters. Many buildings upgraded their ventilation systems. Many learned how to use N95 masks.

(As recently as six years ago, I knew nothing about N95 masks. Oh, innocent times.)

***

Some places upgraded their ventilation around here in pandemic times, but not to the same degree as in response to the wildfire smoke events. Maybe the people most aware of ventilation had already made their upgrades and felt little need to do more in response to covid-19. Maybe it’s harder to find qualified HVAC workers (other building repair people are harder to get). Maybe I don’t know what’s going on (or not) because I’m no HVAC expert. I haven’t inspected buildings’ guts.

When I talk to people about covid, my mental model of how covid works clashes with theirs. I doubt any two people share identical models of what covid does. Some people’s mental models skip air flow, such that they ignore any distinction in infection risk between indoors and outdoors. Maybe if the media put more emphasis on ventilation…

***

We can raise concerns about wildfire smoke without blaming anyone here. Sure, global warming increases wildfires, and activities in San Francisco increase global warming, but that’s too many steps for it to feel like an accusation of the people you’re talking to about HEPA filtration.

Talking about improving ventilation to prevent covid infections is an accusation. Covid only spreads where infected people are. To talk about needing to change the air is to imply that the person you’re talking to may be diseased.

Covid-19 is invisible. You don’t even feel it in your lungs at the time of infection, unlike wildfire smoke. In the air, it’s easy to ignore.

***

I’m happy to see that public schools in Boston report carbon dioxide levels in the air.

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