What you can do

What You Can Do

It may seem that our air quality problem is so large and abstract that there is little that ordinary people can do to significantly clean the air. In fact, there are many actions that individuals can take to reduce air pollution in their homes and neighborhoods. Every action we take to lower our personal energy use reduces the air pollution from power plants. Nearly everything we consume and nearly all our modes of transportation affect air quality. Here are some ways you can reduce your own impact and make the air cleaner.  

Be efficient 
Purchase energy efficient appliances, insulate your home, and buy energy-efficient doors and windows. Buy compact fluorescent light bulbs, which use one-fourth the energy of incandescent bulbs. (Be sure to dispose of them safely.) Keep your thermostat low in the winter. In the summer, turn your air conditioner to 78 degrees, or use fans if you can.

Become a Clean Air Warrior
Speak up on behalf of clean air wherever you live or work. Advocate for retrofitting diesel school buses in your local school district. Volunteer for organized efforts to secure cleaner buses and garbage trucks. Tell your church to buy high-efficiency light bulbs. Report air quality problems or excessive bus idling to your local health department. Go to the Environmental Protection Agency website to learn as much as you can about various programs and ititiatives to secure cleaner air.

Even when they are turned “off,” equipment such as televisions, computers and cellphone chargers draw energy off the grid. Use power strips as a central “off” switch for these items or unplug them when not in use. 


 Get an energy audit 
Professional contractors can pinpoint where and how to make your home more energy efficient. They can give you a detailed list of priorities to help choose which projects to take on first. (In Pittsburgh, Conservation Consultants Inc. will do an audit for $150.) 

Buy clean energy Coal-fired electric plants, which provide most of Pennsylvania’s electricity, emit fine particulates, mercury and sulfur dioxide, a precursor to acid rain. If you can’t buy clean energy from your local utility (in many parts of western Pennsylvania, you can’t), consider purchasing green credits. The credits fund clean energy projects like wind energy or farmer-run methane plants. Find out where to get green power. Look for programs certified renewable by a third party source, such as Green-e, www.green-e.org.

Know your footprint 
There are a number of online resources to help calculate your carbon footprint, a good way to see how much air pollution you emit. The EPA provides different ways to measure your footprint. One example can be found at

Lay off the gas 
Each gallon of gas burned in the average motor vehicle generates 19 pounds of CO2, the most common greenhouse gas. Tailpipes also emit nitrous oxides and other gases. When heated in sunlight, these produce ground-level ozone, which can cause or aggravate respiratory and cardiovascular illness. Walking, biking and taking public transportation are excellent ways to reduce air pollution. Living and working in transit- and walking-friendly areas can reduce the need for car trips. (Calculate how “walkable” your neighborhood is at: www.walkscore.com.) Consider buying a hybrid or a vehicle that runs on alternative fuels such as vegetable-based biodiesel to make your drive a cleaner one.

Learn about Air Quality Action Days
Pay attention to “air quality action days” during the summer. (You can check on local air quality in Pennsylvania.) Increased levels of ozone and fine particulates cause or exacerbate serious health problems for the old, the young, pregnant women, diabetics, and those with heart conditions or lung diseases, such as asthma. On air quality action days, carpool or take the bus to work, avoid mowing the lawn or fueling your car during the heat of the day. Those at risk should avoid outdoor exertion.

Plant a tree 
Trees absorb particulate matter, nitrogen oxides and ground-level ozone. A healthy tree converts these gases into about 260 pounds of oxygen a year, more than half what the average human breathes in a year. Planted near a house, a tree reduces cooling costs in the summer by providing shade and lowers heating costs in the winter. Keep the trees you already have in good condition by pruning them regularly. Learn more at TreeVitalize.

At the store, buy local
The average store-bought food item travels 1,500 miles to your table. Cut this trip down by buying locally grown produce and meat. Or grow your own by starting a vegetable garden. Avoid buying bottled water. It takes 1.5 million barrels of oil a year to make the water bottles Americans use every year, plus the oil used to transport them.

Avoid backyard fires and burn barrels 
Toss the trash, recycling whenever possible. Burning garbage or even wood outdoors can release toxic particles into the air that are harmful to your health and that of your neighbors. Use natural gas or propane if you must barbecue. Update your fireplace or woodstove to remove particulate pollution.

Watch the spray
Many products for your home, yard or office are made with chemicals that contribute to air pollution when used. To keep an unhealthy spray away, select products, including paint, that are water-based or have low amounts of volatile organic compounds (VOCS). Paint with a brush, not a sprayer. Use a push or electric lawn mower. 

Remember the small things
Tiny particles such as dust and soot can get stuck in the lungs when breathing and increase asthma attacks, bronchitis and other lung ailments; lessen resistance to infections; or lead to premature death among people who are sick or elderly. To reduce this type of small-particle pollution, use a rake or broom rather than a leaf blower or other types of equipment that raise dust; and on days when unhealthy air is reported, don’t use a wood stove or fireplace and drive less.

Protect indoor air
Air pollution also is an indoor problem. To help keep air clean in your home, office or school, don’t smoke or, at least, don’t smoke indoors; use safer cleaning products, such as baking soda; have gas appliances and heater regularly inspected and maintained; and clean frequently to remove dust and molds.

*These are tips based on h magazine's coverage of this topic.  Pittsburgh-based freelance writer, Reid R Frazier contributed to this compilation.

Opportunities to work with local organizations:

Clean Air Council – “get involved”
Clean Water Action, PA -- “online actions”

GASP – “get involved”

PennFuture – “take action”
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