The Unspoken Air Quality Risk From California Wildfires: VOCs

Healthy Living, PollutionNovember 16, 2018

  This has been a difficult week for the state of California. The Camp Fire started in Butte County, which is about an hour north of Sacramento. As of today it has burned approximately 141,000 acres, generated 63 confirmed fatalities, and destroyed 11,862 structures (which includes homes). It is about 40% contained. So, while firefighters are gaining the upper hand there is still a long way to go before the threat is completely gone. The Woolsey Fire is burning in southern California, and centered in Los Angeles and Ventura Counties. It has burned 98,362 acres, created 3 fatalities, and decimated 435 structures. However, there are 57,000 structures at risk. CBS news indicates that this blaze is 62% contained. If you live near either of these fires, and are concerned, the best place to go for up to date information is the Cal Fire website. Please stay safe, and heed any and all warnings issued by the authorities. </br>

The Impact On Air Quality

One of the regrettable side effects of the fires that is getting much notice and news coverage, is the impact on air quality. Weather patterns in the northern part of the state are making things worse, and the area is now facing its seventh day of hazardous air. High pressure zones over the Pacific Ocean are pushing smoke from the Camp Fire directly into the San Francisco Bay area. The pressure also forces the smoke closer to the earth’s surface. Airnow.gov tracks local air quality, and we suggest you follow it closely. These are the highest five cities for dangerous air quality as of publication:   pastedGraphic.png   All of them are located in Northern California. AQI stands for Air Quality Index. It is a composition of data regarding ground level ozone, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and particulate pollution. Anything above 150 is considered hazardous, and anything above 300 is considered an emergency. So, please keep careful watch of the AQI index you live in the area. We suggest staying indoors as much as possible this weekend, particularly if you have prior cardiac or respiratory issues. If you must go outside, consider wearing a surgical mask. They are inexpensive, and ship Amazon prime.   

The Neglected Danger Of VOCs

There is no shortage of public information about particulate pollution. We have even covered it ourselves. It is a very serious issue, and merits the attention it receives. However, there is a side to the poor air quality that is not getting the press it deserves: Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). VOCs are compounds containing the element carbon which easily become gasses. Once they become a gas, they concentrate in the air, and thus become a hazard. There are lots of chemicals that match this profile, and the EPA has associated them with both short and long term health effects. So, what you breathe in this weekend could persist for much longer.  VOCs are emitted from a disturbingly long list of consumer goods under normal circumstances. However, wildfires dramatically increase the exposure risk. A study conducted in 2009 highlights this very well. VOCs exist because the compounds “boil” or become a gas at low temperatures. For example, Formaldehyde (a common and carcinogenic VOC) will exist as a gas at any temperature above negative two degrees Fahrenheit. It isn’t this low for others, but clearly VOCs become stable at temperatures well below the boiling point of water. The issue is that the source of VOCs are usually plastics (from furniture), epoxies (from carpets), and wood products (furniture and office products). Wildfires obviously produce a lot of heat. When they burn these materials and others in their path they release the entire VOC component into the air. Even if they do not directly burn something, the increase in local temperatures will accelerate VOC emissions. The VOC’s travel in the air independently, and also become part of the matrix that makes up the AQI we examined before.  So, the population of California’s largest urban areas are all seeing an accelerated exposure to VOCs. And, unfortunately staying indoors is not a solution. Most homes have air conditioning/heating systems. These air handlers usually have a thirty percent fresh air replacement rate, which means that every hour thirty percent of the air in a home is replaced with fresh air from the outdoors. If the outdoor is laden with VOCs, then you have a very serious indoor air quality problem. At the time of writing the temperature in San Francisco was forty eight degrees. So, it is fair to say that many people are running the heater, and falling victim to this very problem.   

VOC Air Purifiers

VOCs are a particularly difficult problem to solve. It is not like dust in the air, which can removed by simply replacing the filters in the air handler at the recommended intervals. Filters are just too permeable to trap VOCs. What is needed is a true VOC air purifier, which uses the power of chemistry to eliminate the VOC in the air.  The principal behind a VOC air purifier is called Oxidation. This is the process by which electrons (the negative charge in an atom) are removed from a compound until it becomes something that is not harmful (not a VOC). This can be accomplished in a number of ways. Probably the most common method of Oxidation is Ozone. Ozone generators are sold as VOC air purifiers all over the world. They do work as advertised, and will remove VOC from the air of a home. However, they have a dark side. Ozone is non-discriminatory. So, it will react with anything that comes into its path not just the VOCs. This puts upholstery, works of art, and your lung tissue at risk. The EPA has identified Ozone as particularly dangerous to breathe, and sets limits on exposure levels. The state of California has gone even further, and actually banned Ozone generators wherever people are present. You cannot purchase them legally in the state, so that would not be a good option for the victims of the wildfires.  Another common medium for VOC air purifiers are carbon or activated charcoal. These are filters made of elemental carbon, which chemically attract VOCs and trap them. The problem is that they don’t have a lot of surface area, and will saturate quickly. This is particularly problematic in high CFM VOC air purifiers. Some will become completely ineffective in as little as a few days. Repeatedly changing the carbon filters becomes time consuming and expensive. Again, not a good solution for this circumstance. A new technology on the market is called PECO. It relies on a catalyst embedded within a HEPA filter matrix. This catalyst is activated by LED lights on the exterior of the filter. The problem is that dust and larger particle pollution will become embedded within the dense filter, and start to cover the catalyst. So, the product starts loosing efficiency the minute you turn it on. Keeping up with the filter changes is just as difficult and pricy as it is for carbon filters. Furthermore, the LED lights cannot be replaced. The best LEDs in the world will last at most two years. It is very expensive for something that will only last that long. Populations who have to plan around wildfire risk need all of the savings they can muster, and this not a wise spend.  PCO was discovered by two Japanese researchers, and subsequently used by NASA to control VOC emissions aboard the International Space Station.    pastedGraphic_1.png        Tiny glass tubes are coated with a compound called Titanium Dioxide, and then exposed to UV-C light. When this happens, the chemistry of the Titanium Dioxide is changed in a way that attracts water vapor to the glass surface. The water molecule is then cleaved in a very specific way, and something called a Hydroxyl Radical is formed. This radical will remove electrons from VOCs as well as other organic (carbon based) species in the air such as bacteria and viruses. In fact, published research has proven it very effective in eliminating both.  It is a complex chemical process, but the end result is harmless carbon dioxide. It is also a passive process, and nothing is exhausted into the surroundings. The Hydroxyl Radical is stationary, and never leaves the surface of the glass. Air is pulled across this surface using a fan where it is exposed to the radical. Thus, it is completely safe. It has in fact been cleared by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to be used in surgical theatres. The technology has now been developed into commercial and consumer forms, which are available for purchase. The only annual maintenance to change the lamps that activate the Titanium Dioxide, which is infrequent. The safety of PCO combined with its long lasting efficacy and low maintenance make it a perfect choice for Californians concerned about air quality during a wildfire.  pastedGraphic_2.png

The APS-200

AIrocide holds the worldwide rights to the PCO technology used by NASA to control VOCs. The company has been a global leader in the industrial air purification space since 2001. They are also the preferred air quality solution for Napa Valley wineries, and are in over ninety of the world’s finest wine cellars. They are used to prevent the spread of mold on wine barrels, and also control VOCs which may change the flavor and aroma of the wine. In 2013 the company introduced its first consumer air purification device: The APS-200. It is a true filter less VOC air purifier, that uses the power of PCO to completely eliminate VOCs from the air. The only annual maintenance is changing the bulbs which activate the catalyst. This is infrequent, easy, and inexpensive. The Airocide APS-200 is the solution that concerned Californians need right now. It is FDA cleared and listed with the California Air Resources Board. The technology is proven, and has been on the market for over five years. That is a lifetime in consumer goods. So, when you make a choice to protect your family with a VOC air purifier this year choose the best. Choose proven NASA technology. Choose the Airocide APS-200.