Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Inside the Bubble: Breathing Room

       The past few weeks in Salt Lake City have given us by far the longest stretch of decent air quality that I can remember. I still can't have my bedroom window open at night, though -- which I have enjoyed for most of my life -- because of all the wood burning. And there are still people who insist on warming up their cars in the morning, which fills the air with toxic fumes when I'm jogging.
   But for the most part, it has been incredibly refreshing not to regard breathing out of doors to be hazardous to your health.
   Over the past many years, though, the air has been so bad so much of the time that it has had an impact on me psychologically as well as physically. It was very ominous and oppressive. I felt trapped and powerless. Ultimately, though, I found a solution.

   Several years ago, I bought a HEPA room air cleaner, which I put into my small sun room, along with my treadmill, so I could exercise indoors when the air was too putrid outside. I was so impressed with the fragrance of really, really clean air -- and the sensation of inhaling it deeply -- that I got one for my kitchen and bedroom as well. I felt a sense of accomplishment at having created for myself a tiny island of air purity when the atmosphere outside was filled with fumes, smoke and heavy-metal particulates.  My feeling of helplessness abated. 
   When I moved to Joe's much larger and more open house in the autumn of 2008, the room-size units were no longer feasible. So I did some research on whole-house air cleaners, and we bought one. For those who really care about their bodies, or who have family members with compromised heart or lung health, they are a wonderful investment. They aren't expensive, and -- for me, at least -- it was a very liberating feeling to create this refuge for ourselves.
   We keep our system running all the time (unless the windows are open or, in the summer, when the swamp coolers are on). The air cleaner is fully integrated into the heat and cooling system, so it is cleaning the air whether they are running or not. A fan -- that the specifications say uses less electricity than a 75 watt bulb -- keeps the air circulating continuously through a MERV 16 filter, which is the level of quality used in laboratories, "clean rooms," and surgical theaters. It filters out particles even smaller than the PM 2.5 pollutants which, along with the larger PM 10, have been demonstrated to cause both immediate and long-term damage not only to the lungs but also to every organ system in the body. The soft sound of the newly filtered air coming out of the registers is very pleasant to me.
   The filters, which last a year for the average household, cost about $100 online, and to me, they are well worth it. You can use a MERV 14 instead, which only costs about $30, and get excellent results as well.
   In order to prolong the life of the filter, we installed one of those cheap fiberglass filters from Home Depot in the cold-air return. This catches the kitty's fur and other larger debris, saving the MERV 16 for fine particulates. We change the cheap filter every month.
   I never expected this system to decrease my housekeeping duties, but we really can't seem to find any dust, anywhere. We dutifully go over everything with a damp cloth once a week, but if we pick up anything at all, it is negligible.
  For me, though, that is just a delightful side-effect. What I value so much is the knowledge that as long as I remain within our little biosphere, I can breathe without feeling that I am slowly killing myself. I am dismayed by the dystopian aspect of being forced to live like the "bubble boy," whose immune system was so fragile that he couldn't tolerate air that hadn't been made absolutely pristine, and who could never leave his bubble, even for a hug. I have always loved having windows open and being able to feel the breeze and take in the fragrances of nature. Exercising outside is my greatest pleasure (inside it is a grueling chore). 
   Inhalation and its many benefits are things I took for granted until, perhaps unwisely, I educated myself about what poor air quality does to the body. At the same time, I was learning more and more about the benefits of aerobic exercise -- which requires deep breathing -- and of yoga, which emphasizes the spiritual, emotional and physiological rewards of deep, mindful breathing. So here I am, in this poisonous swamp, wanting to oxygenate and nourish every teensy cell I've got, while realizing that I really need a gas mask just to go to the grocery store.
   What we are doing to the planet is a sin, and it's so very sad that we are ruining the splendid paradise that we should have protected at all costs. But I am very grateful that I have found a way to hide, a place of peace, and some Breathing Room.