Like many Coloradans, I spent much of August inside a home. Climate change is fueling extreme heat and destructive wildfires, both of which exacerbate our air pollution woes.
This meant we had to reevaluate all our plans for fun-filled outdoor activities, especially with the newest family member, my baby nephew. We were stuck inside and, like many Coloradans, we don’t have traditional air conditioning.
With temperatures in the upper 90s and a full house, we needed to cool things off, so we turned on the swamp cooler – a system that uses the cooling effect of evaporating water and requires outdoor air.
Since my professional life is focused on indoor air quality issues, I was curious what would happen inside if we were pulling in polluted air.
We were alarmed when the reading on my sensor rapidly showed unhealthy levels of pollutants indoors. What started as a joke – bunkering down in the basement – quickly lost its humor.
Thanks to a vicious pandemic and extreme summer weather, we are spending more time than ever inside our homes. Colorado’s dangerous ozone problem, driven in large part by oil and gas extraction, has garnered more scrutiny of late. But there’s a missing piece that that receives little attention: buildings.
Burning fossil fuels to heat our space and water and cook our food releases numerous pollutants, including nitrogen oxides, which are dangerous on their own but outside also turn into ozone and particulate matter. The recent spike in dangerous ground-level ozone where I live was attributed in part to these fossil fuels in buildings.
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The health effects are significant: buildings are one of the top sources of early deaths due to combustion pollution in the US and Colorado specifically, according to recent research by MIT.
The impacts of air pollution are borne disproportionately by low-income communities and communities of color. And unlike other industries, indoor and outdoor pollution from buildings is largely unregulated.
While there are various ways individuals can improve and clean their indoor air, it’s time for Colorado leaders to step up and address overlooked building pollution to safeguard public health and the environment. Buildings are responsible for 28% of our state’s carbon emissions and unless those emissions are rapidly curbed, we won’t meet our critical climate change goals.
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First, we need to stop making the problem worse by constructing new buildings with fossil fuels. Right now, the trend is in the opposite direction: Colorado is adding an estimated 30,000 new gas-powered homes every year. There are cleaner, healthier alternatives right here in our state.
All-electric communities like Basalt Vista show that affordable, net-zero housing is possible with today’s technology.
As for the thousands of existing buildings in the state, agencies and utilities should offer incentives and rebates to retrofit existing buildings. Funding for heat pumps for heating and cooling can also help filter and clean indoor air. Changing out gas stoves for electric stoves, like induction, would help to improve indoor air quality.
Colorado regulators should adopt and publicize indoor air quality guidelines based on the latest science. Indoor air is not federally regulated in the U.S., resulting in a lack of awareness and action. Adopting guidelines with safe thresholds indoors is necessary to ensure building codes are protecting us at home, at school, at the office.
It’s also crucial that state leaders prioritize marginalized communities. Research overwhelmingly shows these communities bear the brunt of indoor and outdoor air pollution.
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Every Coloradan has the right to breathe clean air, and protecting your family inside your own home shouldn’t be contingent on the ability to purchase expensive sensors and air purifiers.
Wildfires, extreme heat, and the spread of COVID-19 feel out of our control. But by and large, air pollution is preventable. We must decrease emissions everywhere we can, starting in our neighborhoods and homes.
Infrastructure choices are a clear opportunity for state policymakers to step up and begin decreasing Colorado’s reliance on fossil fuels – we don’t have to lock in decades of harmful emissions and health impacts with every new building we construct. There’s a better way.
Brady Seals (@bradytoday) is a senior associate at Rocky Mountain Institute. She lives in Boulder.
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