How Safe Is Indoor Air?

I recently did some research on whether indoor air is as bad as outdoor air. Before that, I had a conversation with a friend in Beijing that went something like this:

Friend: I’m not sure if I can make badminton tomorrow. I have a basketball game in the day.

Me: Oh man, do you play outside?

Friend: Nah, it’s inside.

Me: Oh, phew. Good.

Friend: Wait, why do you say that?

Me: Oh, the air is way worse outside. I used to feel like I had asthma after playing basketball outside.

Friend: Really? No, they’re not that much different. I saw it’s just 20% different.

 

Seeing as how nerds cannot let matters of fact go, I started using my particle counter to take measurements of inside and outside air at different locations around Beijing. This answer is important: it tells you if it’s any safer to exercise indoors and how much damage you’re doing to your lungs by choosing that seat outdoors at your favorite cafe or restaurant.

 

The Test

So I took measurements in six locations around Beijing, in apartments, cafes, and my gym. I only chose bad days (pollution concentration above the WHO standard of 25), and I avoided days where it rained (because rain can cause quick changes in air quality). Here’s what I found:

1indoor

On average, indoor air had only 36% of the pollution outdoors.

 

Things were a little worse for the smaller .5 micron particles, but still much better than outside:

2

On average, indoor air had only 51% of the .5 micron particulates of outside air. My guess is that the .5 micron data was worse than 2.5 micron data because it’s easier for smaller particles to get into your home and stay suspended in the air.

There is a lot of variation between places. For the 2.5 micron particles, the locations varied from 14% to 58%. Dr. Saint Cyr also found significant variation between two apartments he lived in, 50% to 70%.

 

Conclusion: Indoor air is relatively safer

In terms of particulate pollution, you’re safer snagging an indoor seat and working out indoors, particularly on bad days (I’ve seen some argue that we are particularly vulnerable when we work out because we breathe more deeply than normal).

But remember that doesn’t mean indoor air is safe, just better than outside. For example, if your air at home had 40% of Beijing’s concentration last night at 11pm (8/15), you would’ve had 64 g/m3 in your home, which is more than twice the WHO standard of 25.

 

As usual, I’m posting more on my methods and raw data below.

 

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DIY Filter Compared to Expensive Filters

UPDATE: I now have directly comparable data with the DIY Filter, Blue Air, and Philips: Direct comparison tests.

In earlier posts (1, 2), I showed that you can make effective an DIY filter to clean air pollution out of your home. But just because it is effective doesn’t mean it’s as effective as the Ferrari filters. How effective is the DIY filter compared to the expensive filters?

I’ll attempt to answer this question from several angles in different posts.

 

Comparison with Dr. Saint Cyr’s Test

Here’s one method: comparisons with the published data from the blog of the Beijing doctor Dr. Saint Cyr (which was an original inspiration for me that air purifiers could actually reduce air pollution). He ran tests of an 11,000 RMB IQ Air and a 6,000 RMB Blue Air. I used the same calculation of effectiveness and compared his results for the pricey machines with tests of my DIY filter. Here are the results:

DIY Filter comparison

To make the comparisons more precise, I compared my filter results only to the tests he reports from the IQ Air and Blue Air on max power in his smaller room.

Dr. Saint Cyr calculated reductions based on outside air quality, which I do not think is the best method. I think it makes more sense to calculate reductions based on the room air before and after using the filter because my room air is significantly cleaner than outside air, even before using the filter. But to make the data comparable, I calculated effectiveness using Dr. Saint Cyr’s method.

Now, the comparisons aren’t perfect. Dr. Saint Cyr’s smaller room is still 6.5 meters larger than mine. He also doesn’t say how long he ran his filters and whether the doors were closed. My tests were with the doors closed and overnight, so the filter had several hours to run.

(Update: via email Dr. Saint Cyr said his tests were with doors closed and testing times of 1 hour+.)

But even if the difference in room size bumps mine down 5% and the others up 5%, that would mean 11,000 RMB and 166 RMB get you similar results. To illustrate that, I calculated a graph of how much you’re paying for each percentage reduction in air pollution:

DIY filter cost per reduction

Of course, the ideal test would use all three filters in the same room with the same particle counter. To that end, I will hopefully get the chance to borrow a friend’s Panasonic filter and test it in my home. I’ll post those results when I get them.

 

Conclusion: A DIY Filter can be as effective

Although the comparisons are imperfect, they show that a DIY filter is at least roughly comparable to expensive filters at a far lower cost. This illustrates my larger point: all you really need to combat particulate air pollution is a HEPA filter. In fact, Dr. Saint Cyr found the same thing in his tests of a much simpler Hunter brand HEPA filter. In a room with the doors closed, his HEPA got 91% of the pollution–similar to what I found.

For data nerds like me, I’m posting more details on my data and methods here:

Test Details:

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