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The Air We Breathe

Updated: Aug 23, 2020

As we near the end of the hottest summer on record, both in the Philadelphia area, our nation, and the entire world, we can look forward to some respite before winter arrives.

As a family physician, I regularly see patients with a variety of chronic respiratory diseases. Though the summer brings stifling heat, humidity, pollen, and ground-level ozone, many of these patients have symptoms year-round, even when windows are closed and the air conditioning is on. Why is that? Key culprits in the air we breathe: pollutants such as ozone, particulate matter (PM2.5 and 10), nitrogen and sulfur oxides, formaldehyde, and allergens. Combustion of fossil fuels inside and outside our homes also produces other dangerous pollutants, such as carbon monoxide (CO). Have you tested your CO detector recently?

Where do these indoor pollutants come from? Ozone, particulate matter, and sulfur and nitrogen oxides are in the outdoor air, which then becomes our indoor air, unless your home has highly sophisticated air filtration system. Formaldehyde seeps out of manufactured wood products, upholstery, and building materials, while common allergens include hose dust mites, mold, and animal dander. If you cook on a gas range without running an effective exhaust hood you are adding a great deal to the chemical soup you and your love ones breathe. According to a recent report by Physicians for Social Responsibility and 3 partners, peak air pollution with Nitrogen oxides and particulate matter in homes with a gas stove may exceed EPA standards for outdoor air. For example, baking a cake may push Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels as high as 230 parts per billion (ppb) – the EPA standard is 100. In fact, there is no safe minimum level or any air pollutant – the higher the level, the higher the risk. Children’s small, rapidly developing bodies are at particular risk, not only for respiratory disease but impaired intellectual development as well. Low income communities, where renters outnumber owners, and outdoor air quality is worse, suffer the most.

Because respiratory disease in children and adults is such a burden on our society – annual costs estimated at $49 billon for COPD, and over $50 billion for asthma, there’s a wealth of high-quality, peer-reviewed research available to help us understand how to keep our lungs healthy. You can have the greatest and most immediate impact on your indoor air quality by replacing your gas range with electric. Induction stoves, for example, are as responsive as gas cooking, and much safer. Not ready for a new stove? Run your range hood if it exhausts outside, even when baking.

The climate crisis requires us to leave fossil fuels, such as natural gas, behind. Electrification of our homes is part of that solution, and it offers us immediate health benefits for our families and ourselves.

Would you like to learn more about how to protect yourself, your family and our communities from respiratory disease? See PSR’s website for lots more resources!

Daniel Wolk, MD

Physicians for Social Responsibility PA

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Dec 11, 2020

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