Though we have a tendency to associate air pollution with summer smog, winter isn’t a completely benign season as far as our lungs are concerned. After all, winter’s the time when people burn wood in their fireplaces or crank up a space heater or kerosene stove, all the while keeping their houses closed up tight to stay warm. Coal-fired utilities are still burning fuel to meet heating demands, which means they’re generating “particle pollution,” microscopic air particles that can penetrate deep into the lungs, potentially causing serious health problems. Harsh weather and cold temperatures may force people to drive more than walk, bike or use mass transit, increasing tail pipe emissions. And people may spend more time idling their cars in winter than summer, hoping to warm up the engine and get the heater going before they have to drive off in a cold vehicle.
INDOORS Indoors, those tight houses may be keeping you warm – but they also could be causing toxic chemicals from burning fuel to build up. Some people experience headaches, dizziness, sleepiness, and watery eyes from air pollutants commonly associated with burning wood, propane, kerosene or natural gas. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, though most “combustion” appliances, as they’re called, are safe, it’s always a good idea to take precautions to stay healthy. For example, a wood-burning stove or fireplace never should smoke.
If yours does, check the damper to make sure smoky air can escape up the chimney, not into your house. A working carbon monoxide detector is another must-have. Why? When wood doesn’t burn completely, the resulting smoke contains a variety of chemicals, including carbon monoxide (CO). Though it’s an odorless, colorless gas, don’t be fooled. Exposure to CO impinges on your blood’s ability to carry oxygen, one of its main functions. You can get a digital detector that will warn you with a loud series of beeps when carbon monoxide reaches dangerous levels.
It should go without saying that every home needs a fire detector, whether there’s also a fireplace in the house or not. If you have a supplemental generator for your home, make sure it is installed outside, rather than indoors, and a good distance away from doors, windows, vents or any other entry points into the house. Carbon monoxide is the culprit here, too. It’s toxic, can accumulate quickly, and linger for hours. In high enough levels it can kill; please don’t take the risk.
Use exhaust fans, like those you have in the bathroom or over your stove in the kitchen, to help ventilate those rooms. They’ll circulate the air and reduce the likelihood of mold, mildew and bacteria. And remember to change the air filters on your HVAC system regularly to trap dust, dander and other allergens that can proliferate in winter months.
OUTDOORS Outdoors, don’t give up walking just because the temperature has dropped! If it’s not icy or too snowy, dress warmly and enjoy hoofing it anyway. If you do drive and want to warm up the car before you take off, Utah’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) recommends idling no longer than 30 seconds.
Idling generates nitrogen oxides (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), both of which pollute the air and can make people sick. There’s an economic cost to idling, too. According to DEQ, “ten seconds of idling can use more fuel than turning off the engine and restarting it. A car idling for two minutes uses about the same amount of fuel it takes to drive one mile.” In other words, a car that’s idling gets zero mpg – but it’s still costing you money.
Plus, many components of a vehicle, such as the wheel bearings, tires and suspension system, warm up only when the vehicle is moving. If you’re worried about your kids getting into a cold car, keep a couple of blankets in the back seat for them to cuddle under until the heater kicks in. For more ways to save energy in the winter or any time, here’s my list of Top Ten Ways to Save Energy and Money at Home.