Category Archives: Indoor Air Quality

Adam Smith and a Steady-State Economy

The world we have created is a product of our thinking, it cannot be changed without changing our thinking. – Albert Einstein

Properly functioning markets allocate resources efficiently, but they cannot determine the sustainable scale; that can be achieved only by government policy. – Herman Daly

Human beings are the strangest of creatures. We make observations about our surroundings or about our behaviors, these observations become cast into theory, and then these same theories feedback to shape both our behavior and our surroundings.

In 1776, Adam Smith made some ground breaking observations about economic behavior and published An Inquiry into the Nature of Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Smith would argue that individuals, working in unfettered freedom for their own self interest, would collectively and via an “invisible hand” provide for the greatest common good. His work would provide the foundation for much of today’s economic theory and would father the concept of the “free market”.

Adam’s work coincided with the birth our nation, and it is ironic, but not surprising that this Scottish moral philosopher, would become the patron saint of Wall Street. For many, the belief in the invisible hand of an unfettered free market would take on religious overtones and it would become the dominant sub-text in our American political discourse.

Theories about our world only survive until a new observation fractures the old beliefs and takes us forward to a new way of seeing. Caught up in our current ways of seeing the world, we find it hard to believe that what we believe today might be the equivalent of thinking that the “world is flat”. It has been over 200 years since Adam Smith fathered the science of economics and mainstream economic theory has evolved into a highly regarded science wrapped in the respectability of sophisticated and complex mathematics. However, emerging resource limitations and ecological observations are beginning to cause fractures in the old belief system. An belief system that blindly assumed that the world economy operates on an infinite resource base with infinite waste sinks, and that infinite economic growth is a self evident truth.

The gapping hole in mainstream economic theory is scale. In other words, the size of the economy relative to the closed ecosystem on which it relies for resources and waste sinks. This means that there are limits to growth, and that to live within those limits, the economy needs to find an optimum or steady-state condition. However, free markets and their invisible hand are blind to these limits and will continue to grow out of self interest until the invisible hand of the underlying ecosystem adjusts out of its own self interest. Unless we collectively wake up to this gapping hole in our world view, this adjustment will be both painful and harsh. Think massive population die-off and a pre-industrial standard of living.

The market cannot determine a sustainable scale for our economy. Because it is based on individual self interest, the free market’s inevitable path is one of ecological overshoot and catastrophic collapse. Government is the only economic player capable of acting in our common interest and of setting a sustainable economic scale. Unfortunately we are hard wired to discount the future and the government is …. well …. us. So short of a major mind altering crisis, it is unlikely that we will hear any our politicians call for an end to growth. It is more likely that the end of our belief in the goodness and rightness of growth will be imposed on us by peak oil. Many observers agree that oil production, as measured by flows, has already plateaued. The market forces of demand destruction have initially maintained a fragile supply-demand equilibrium, but its only a matter of time before oil consumption becomes completely supply driven and economic growth is stopped and then reversed.

This will likely result in a kind of economic armageddon. However, the vested individual interests of the free market will continue to fight the notion of a steady-state economy until we hit some kind of alcoholic bottom. That’s unfortunate, because a steady-state economy scaled to our planet’s ecosystem may not be able to grow quantitatively, but it can grow qualitatively. In other words, rather than more stuff, we could produce better stuff. We could measure gross domestic happiness instead of gross domestic product. We could aspire to a true standard of living rather than today’s GDP driven standard of consumption. Think more time, less hassle and stress, and a healthier population.

In the world of housing, a sustainable, steady-state economy means the end of low density single family housing. It means smaller, multi-family housing. Dwelling patterns will evolve to be more tribal than individual. Think urban village versus suburban wasteland. It means a healthier walkable lifestyle. It means healthful indoor air quality, and buildings that are self sufficient in energy. Since our mono-cultured, industrial food system is unsustainable, expect food to be grown locally and our children to relearn its source and value.

It will be a world in which the common interest finds parity with the individual interest. A world on which Adam Smith, the moral philosopher, would smile.

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Indoor Air Quality – It’s Much Worse than you think!

“Indoor air pollutant levels are 25-62% greater than outside [pollutant] levels”
California Air Resources Board

“…levels of about a dozen common organic pollutants [were found] to be
2 to 5 times higher inside homes than outside, regardless of whether the homes were located in rural or highly industrial areas”

EPA – Total Exposure Assessment Methodology (TEAM) study

Air Pollution

What? There’s more pollution inside our homes than outside? How can that be?

For one, our building codes tend to be reactive and just haven’t caught up with this problem.

Let’s start with explaining the HOW. To maintain healthy indoor air quality, the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) recommends a ventilation rate of 0.35 air changes per hour for new homes. That means over eight complete air changes of the interior volume of air in your home every day.

However, our codes have given builders a free ride on this requirement for years, assuming that homes will achieve this ventilation standard either via “drafty” construction and the high infiltration of outside air or for newer homes with somewhat tighter construction by the opening and closing of windows. Its no surprise then that during all or part of the year, either category of home (tight or drafty) can experience sub-standard ventilation and increased levels of indoor air pollution.

Where does all this pollution come from? Basically it comes from three primary sources:

  • The material’s used to build our homes
  • Stuff given off by our home’s heaters, fireplaces, stoves, and appliances
  • Stuff we bring into the home

Many of the materials commonly used in construction contain VOC’s or Volatile Organic Compounds that can “out-gas” over time and pollute our home’s air. These can be found in range of products including:

  • Sealants and caulk
  • Glues and adhesives
  • Paints, primers, and sealers
  • Certain kinds of insulation
  • Certain kinds of Carpet
  • Engineered wood products like particleboard, OSB, or plywood that are bonded together with Urea Formaldehyde (UF) or Phenol Formaldehyde (PF). Many of these products can be found in furniture, kitchen cabinets, and floor systems like cork or artificial wood laminate floor systems.

Many of our homes use gas or propane as a fuel forced air furnaces, water heaters, and stoves and ovens. In addition, many homes use wood fireplaces or stoves for supplemental heat. What most of us are unaware of, is that combustion gases, including carbon monoxide, and particulate by-products can be back-drafted from the chimney or flue into the living space if a combustion appliance is not properly vented or does not receive enough supply air. Back-drafting can be a particular problem in tightly constructed homes.

And then there is the stuff we bring in or let into the home either knowingly or unknowingly. Here are just a few examples:

  • Biological contaminants include bacteria, molds, mildew, viruses, animal dander and cat saliva, house dust mites, cockroaches, and pollen.
  • Formaldehyde from tobacco smoking, household products, and the use of unvented fuel-burning appliances, like gas stoves or kerosene space heaters.
  • Organic chemicals are widely used as ingredients in household products. Paints, varnishes, and wax all contain organic solvents, as do many cleaning, disinfecting, cosmetic, degreasing, and hobby products. Fuels are made up of organic chemicals. All of these products can release organic compounds (VOC’s) while you are using them, and, to some degree, even when they are stored.
  • Methylene Chloride is included in many paint strippers, adhesive removers, and aerosol spray paints. Methylene chloride is known to cause cancer in animals. Also, methylene chloride is converted to carbon monoxide in the body and can cause symptoms associated with exposure to carbon monoxide.
  • Benzene is a known human carcinogen. The main indoor sources of this chemical are environmental tobacco smoke, stored fuels and paint supplies, and automobile emissions in attached garages.
  • Perchloroethylene is the chemical most widely used in dry cleaning. In laboratory studies, it has been shown to cause cancer in animals. Recent studies indicate that people breathe low levels of this chemical both in homes where dry-cleaned goods are stored and as they wear dry-cleaned clothing. If dry-cleaned goods have a strong chemical odor when you pick them up, do not accept them until they have been properly dried.
  • According to a recent EPA survey, 75 percent of U.S. households used at least one pesticide product indoors during the past year. Products used most often are insecticides and disinfectants. It is important to remember that the “-cide” in pesticides means “to kill.”
  • Paradichlorobenzene is a commonly used active ingredient in moth repellents. This chemical is known to cause cancer in animals. The EPA requires that products containing paradichlorobenzene bear warnings such as “avoid breathing vapors” to warn users of potential short-term toxic effects. Where possible, paradichlorobenzene, and items to be protected against moths, should be placed in trunks or other containers that can be stored in areas that are separately ventilated from the home, such as attics and detached garages. Paradichlorobenzene is also the key active ingredient in many air fresheners (in fact, some labels for moth repellents recommend that these same products be used as air fresheners or deodorants)!

All of these sources of indoor air pollution can be eliminated or at least mitigated with a few simple steps.

  1. Specify VOC free construction materials
  2. Provide outside air for combustion appliances, and outside ventilation for gas stoves
  3. Wire bathroom exhaust fans to humidistat controls to mitigate sources of mold and mildew
  4. Read labels and understand what you bring in the home may be a source of pollution (non-toxic alternatives)
  5. Install a energy efficient whole house ventilator (more) to provide out of sight, out of mind 7/24 fresh air to your home at all times.

To get a FREE eBook on indoor air pollution and what you do about it, go here.

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