Communities threatened by dangerous air pollution are setting up emergency centers where people can go to breathe clean air. Here’s how they work.
Normally, when air quality threatens human health, people are urged to stay indoors to avoid breathing dirty air. But indoor air isn’t necessarily cleaner than what’s outside. That’s because most buildings don’t have adequate filters to trap polluting air particles during the normal exchange between indoor air and outdoor air.
Since many organizations and governments already set up cooling centers when high temperatures could lead to heat strokes and heart attacks, they wondered whether similar centers could be set up when the air is not just too hot, but too dangerous to breathe.
The question has come to the fore more frequently over the last few years as massive forest fires fueled by the climate crisis have become the largest source of airborne particulate matter, surpassing coal-fired utilities and cars and trucks.
And we know the impacts of air pollution are not distributed evenly. Communities already impacted by environmental racism are disproportionately burdened by unhealthy air. And other vulnerable communities—including children, older adults, pregnant people, outdoor workers, and firefighters—are also hit harder when wildfires burn.
Some of the hardest hit states have been the first to test out the “clean air center” concept. California is creating a statewide network of 300 clean air centers that will open when air pollution reaches dangerous levels. The first one launched in 2022 in a public library in San Francisco. It includes a hand washing station and two MERV 13 (high efficiency) air filters. Existing facilities like schools, libraries and other public buildings are being retrofitted with upgraded ventilation systems and portable air cleaners, too. More than 75 percent of clean air centers in the Bay Area will be established to benefit vulnerable communities most impacted by air pollution.
“As climate change increasingly drives longer, more intense wildfire seasons, it’s critical for residents to have access to clean, filtered air when smoke blankets the region,” said Sharon Landers, interim executive officer of San Francisco’s Air District. “Clean Air Centers offer a place for those who may not have access to clean air so they can protect their health from wildfire smoke.”
“We know that climate change impacts everyone, especially those who live in areas with higher pollution and fewer resources,” said San Francisco Mayor London N. Breed. “Providing air cleaning equipment to jurisdictions like San Francisco…allows us to equip community serving organizations so they can be places of respite for our residents during times of poor air quality.”
Seattle started setting up its clean air centers in 2019, when wildfires in Canada, Oregon and California caused air pollution to spike 24 days, the air occasionally being so bad it was deemed “unhealthy for all.” The program has outfitted five public buildings with filtration systems that screen out toxins and smoke. Air doors at entrances push dirty air away. Other tech systems determine how clean the indoor and outdoor air are.
“It’s time to prepare for our new normal,” said Seattle Mayor Jenny A. Durkan. “As wildfires become more prevalent in our region and smoke from wildfires becomes a growing concern, we [must] ensure that our communities are prepared. By upgrading our public facilities to provide cleaner indoor air, we are ensuring our residents have a safe location to breathe more easily in extreme conditions.”
New York City is also now seriously considering setting up clean air centers after Canadian wildfire smoke blanked the city earlier this summer.
Some questions remain over whether the centers work better than wearing a good-fitting N95 mask, though it’s not necessarily an “either/or” calculation, especially since not everyone may be able to get an N95 mask when they need it. It’s also true that, while the ultimate goal is to stop climate change, in the near term, global temperatures will continue to rise and more destructive, polluting forest fires will occur. It makes sense to be as prepared as possible for the ongoing air quality threats these fires pose.
What You Can Do:
- Forest fires or no, we can do more to limit local air pollution sources. Encourage utility companies to get more power from clean energy like wind and solar and less from fossil fuels. Support creation and expansion of mass transit systems so people have an alternative to driving their own polluting cars and trucks. Switch to electric lawn and garden tools, ebikes and scooters, and electric vehicles if the opportunity arises.
- Urge your Members of Congress to support the federal Cleaner Air Spaces Act, which would provide grants to help local programs provide free air filtration units and replacement filters to low income households with individuals vulnerable to wildfire smoke.
- Put a clean air filter in your own home. These guidelines will help you figure out what to do.
- If you’re interested in opening clean air centers in your community, review San Francisco’s Clean Air Center Application Process . It offers a good model for creating a similar process in your city or state.
- EPA is using funding available through the American Rescue Plan to provide technical assistance to help communities establish neighborhood cleaner air and cooling centers in public school facilities. The program aims to improve school ventilation and filtration systems, a benefit that will also reduce COVID risks.