Skip to content

Air Pollution and Health

We constantly think about what we are eating and what we are drinking since these actions require interaction with a tangible object. One of the hardest things to do, is to help enlist understanding behind something that we do without thinking, without careful consideration. You’re doing it right now, you’re breathing. The average human breaths in 550 litres per day or, approximately 19 cubic feet of air. Have you ever stopped to think about what your breathing?
Our air is comprised of nitrogen and oxygen, where nitrogen constitutes up to 78.05% of air and oxygen is 20.95%. The remaining, which is less than 1% is primarily argon with carbon dioxide, neon, helium, methane, and krypton present.  Air also contained dust, spores, bacteria, as well as water. In the United States, when it comes to monitoring our air, concentration levels for what is considered acceptable for health are standardized for carbon monoxide (CO), lead (Pb), ground-level ozone (O3), particular matter (PM10 and/or PM2.5), and sulfure dioxide (SO2). The standards set are known as the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) and are based on scientific inquiry, cost associated with limiting production of these pollutants, and other related things (socioeconomic impacts, resources, etc). These standards are constantly reviewed and updated as we have new data from both public health and environmental impacts.

For the last year and a half, I’ve spent a lot of time learning about particulate matter, specifically PM2.5, where 2.5 is the size of the particle (2.5 microns). This is a tiny, tiny particle, smaller than an average size piece of dust. Places with high PM concentrations are particularly not good for those with breathing problems, children and the elderly. Fairbanks is one of the top 5 cities for this pollutant and we’ve been struggling to figure out how to bring that under control.  We have extremely unique conditions here which can drive up the concentration of PM in the winter time.
First, there really isn’t a reasonably priced utility for heating here. Electricity in general is extremely high compared to other places and is primarily created from burning coal or having oil-fired boilers/furnaces. People supplement costs with woodstoves or some other form of solid fuel burning (pellet stoves for instance). To give you an idea, the average cost for the State of Alaska for electricity is about 24 cents per kilowatt energy used versus 10 cents in Washington State. Our electric bill averages about $300 to $400 dollars a month in the winter, sometimes more depending on the temperature. This isn’t taking into account the cost of purchasing fuel for the heater either, and, also, we do not have an alternative way to heat our home. I’m actually pretty grateful we have a fairly well rated home for heating as I know others pay almost double what we pay some months and burn through double the amount of fuel we burn (we average about 500 gallons over a period of about 5-6 months).  

Second, with how cold we get here and the amount of wood burning or solid fuel burning that occurs during the winter, we end up with smoke trapped at ground level due to cold inversions. Essentially, the air is so cold, it crystalizes and becomes heavy, where particles tend to hover instead of dispersing into the atmosphere. Warmer air, traps the colder air at the ground level, creating a capping affect, which causes an inversion. If you’ve ever heard of ice fog, that’s essentially what is happening.  With arctic conditions, limited light and colder air leads to inversions happening way more frequently and lasting a lot longer. To add on to this, Fairbanks is shaped like a bowl, so nothing wants to get out of the bowl very quickly (yay for valley living)! 

PM2.5 is linked to heart attacks, stroke, premature death, and asthma (to name a few). This is because the particle is so small, it’s able to infiltrate your cardiovascular system by getting passed the natural filters you have in your lungs. That particle can then travel everywhere in your body.  There has been some studies even linking mental illness to air pollution (I’m not completely sure how peer reviewed those studies are, but thought it was interesting). Breathing bad air is just like eating a constantly unhealthy diet, it does have the potential of hurting you over an extended amount of time.  

Spare the Air
WHO – Ambient Air Pollution
CDC – Air Quality
Choose Energy


  1. This is very interesting, I had no idea air pollution would cause heart disease? I’ve been thinking lung diseases but not heart and vascular diseases. The sad thing with air pollution is that you have no control over it (other than your own pollution, from vehicles, heating etc), like you have at least for some part when it comes to diet and other lifestyle factors.

    • Kristina Kristina

      That’s been the debate here. We have the health conscious people who don’t want to breath bad air and then we have the “don’t tell me what to do group” who’ll burn just about anything to make it through winter. Theres had to be a lot of public outreach and education to try and change the social culture. The air has improved quite a bit here as a result, but is still way above the recommended health standards.

      I’m not sure if I remembered to say it in the article, but fine particulate matter is smaller than a human hair. It gets passed our natural defenses in our lungs to enter the blood stream. Theres been medical studies showing a correlation between heart attacks or cardiovascular problems with high air pollution days.

      • Why do you think the air has improved? Because of less motor traffic, or something else? Many people don’t have the money to rebuild heating system (we’re included there, our house has oil heating but changing it would require insulation, changing windows etc as well and will cost way more than we have at least now) or are there campaigns there to help people do it?

        • Kristina Kristina

          There is a federally funded program that the State manages. It encouraged people to change out their heating source for something newer (like a better wood stove). You have to meet certain requirements and then you are held to a certain level of responsibility with the stove. Granted, not everyone is game to use the program because I don’t like the caveats 🙂

          Along with that, it’s been primarily education. Split, stack, store, and save with a very cheesy jingle to go along with the phrasing. If you burn responsibly, you burn cleaner, you produce less particulate matter as a result. We also follow a curtailment program. Basically, you’re not suppose to burn wood on bad air days. This particular requirement has had mixed results because some people don’t feel they should not burn at all and it’s hard to enforce.

          Most of last year I took part in working groups where we tried to find solutions that were not costly to try and bring our area into attainment. It was definitely not an easy undertaking and we’re still waiting for the State to actually implement most of our suggestions.

Leave a Reply