Fan The Common Good

“Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.” ~Desmond Tutu

It’s heartening to see people pulling together, even if many recognize they have few other choices right now. Parents, students, healthcare workers, and community groups are building DIY portable air filtering units to help prevent transmission of the devastating airborne pathogen Covid-19 as well as the colds and flu that spread so easily in indoor spaces.

These units also filter particulate matter, particularly relevant in a time when wildfire smoke and other sources of particulate pollution are so dangerous. These often unavoidable exposures are linked to asthma, bronchitis, heart failure, stroke, lung disease, and premature birth. Indoor air pollution has been found to affect the developing fetus and young child, altering brain structure in ways that damage motor function, learning processes, and mental health into adolescence and beyond.  

Plus, filtration helps to mitigate the damaging health effects of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) present in common products such as carpet/furniture/flooring, cleaners, room deodorizers, disinfectants, personal care products, solvents, paints, pesticides, dry-cleaned clothing, copiers, aerosol sprays, and other materials present in the home, school, stores, and elsewhere. VOCs can cause eye, nose, and throat problems; headaches; impaired coordination; nausea; damage to liver, kidneys, and central nervous system; and many are suspected carcinogens.

One way of assessing indoor ventilation is by ‘air changes per hour’ (ACH) — the number of times that all the air in the room has been replaced (ideally, by outdoor air). CDC and ASHRAE guidelines note typical ACH rates.

  • Hospital operating rooms are expected to stay at 20 or better ACH. 
  • Hospital airborne isolation rooms are kept at 12 ACH or greater.
  • Hospital patient rooms are often around 6 ACH.
  • Classrooms are typically well under 2 ACH.
  • Home ventilation is often less than 1 ACH.

A recent study found indoor space with air exchanged five times per hour can cut the risk of Covid transmission by 50 percent. Another study compared classrooms without ventilation to those with controlled mechanical ventilation. It found better ventilation could reduce the risk of Covid infection in schools by 40 percent with two to four air changes per hour, and nearly 83 percent with six air changes per hour. And this study shows that 12 air changes per hour from air filtration may approximate N95 protection.

In active response to this data, people are putting together inexpensive filters to better equip their communities to ward off infection and other effects of trapped indoor air. Many are building inexpensive Corsi-Rosenthal box fan filters (C-R Box) which arose from an online collaboration between Richard Corsi, dean of engineering at University of California, Davis and Jim Rosenthal, owner of an air filtration company in Texas.

Fortune interviewed Joseph Fox, chair of the indoor air quality advisory group with the Ontario Society of Professional Engineers. Dr. Fox said, “These Corsi-Rosenthal units use MERV-13 filters, which can only remove 60% to 80% of those particles, (but) the fan on the C-R box is much bigger and can clean more air. All you care about in the end is the total rate at which the air is cleaned. So, what the C-R box lacks in efficiency, it makes up for in airflow.” A peer-reviewed study found the C-R Box performed better than standard HEPA air cleaning units.

These models are about ten times cheaper than commercial air purifiers. There are many resources online, including what air filter brands to avoid and how to use a round fan when square models aren’t an option. Here’s more science plus additional how-to’s from the collaborative Edge Collective.

Better air filtration shouldn’t be left to community members. It should be a priority in new builds and renovations, guided by more stringent building codes to protect public health. It should be part of a robustly-funded countrywide initiative for schools, daycare centers, public buildings, senior facilities, libraries, shelters for unhoused people, and other gathering places. But right now, the DIY filtration movement is led by students, teachers, parents, and other concerned community members.

A group in Philadelphia is building units for classrooms and speaking up at school board meetings to spread awareness.

Arizona State University students are building boxes to donate to area K through 12 schools. They’re also teaching younger students how to build the boxes themselves.

These box fan filters are a project elementary school-age students can do together. In Kansas, the Wyandotte County Health Equity Task Force offers guidance for doing this with groups of children (school classes, scout groups, 4H, and others) including how to incorporate it into STEM curricula.

Alex LeVine designs similar filtration boxes using inexpensive illuminated computer fans lively enough to feature in many businesses.

And we’re beginning to see them in public spaces.

Notice how dirty the filters are? After a short time, the build-up shows just how much particulate matter is commonly in the air.

The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health offer more guidance on measuring outdoor air ventilation rates and strategies to improve air quality in these detailed links: How To Assess Classroom Ventilation and ASHRAE Reopening Schools and Universities Guidance. Here’s how you can use a carbon-dioxide monitor to assess Covid risk from indoor spaces

Andrew Noymer, an associate professor of population health and disease prevention at UC Irvine, said in an interview with the LA Times, “When cholera ravaged Europe and North America in the 19th century, people ‘revolutionized sewage’ by creating the modern sewage system. They could have just said, ‘Boil your water.’ But they didn’t do that. They gave people clean drinking water.” He went on to say, “Ensuring clean air indoors is the 21st century equivalent.”

“Breathe deep today, and continue walking toward that which will enlighten, no matter what burdens you are carrying of shame, grief, or fear. No one can buy their way or push their way ahead of everyone else. We are all in this together.”     ~Joy Harjo    

On Shrinking Skulls, Squash Shaping, & Science at Home

We tend to discuss unusual topics here. Things like sarcastic fringehead fish, cave burritos, declassified Russian psi experiments, cube-shaped wombat poo, and salamander stickiness.

We indulge in a strange array of podcasts and publications, and my family generally tolerates the way I read aloud intriguing passages from whatever book is currently captivating me. (Right now it’s Rob Dunn’s Never Home Alone.)

Even when my kids were small, none of them got much out of science kits. The only kit-like thing I saved from that time were several large, firm plastic molds meant to be snapped around immature squash in the garden. Presumably, once trapped in these molds, the poor squash would have no option but to grow into grimacing squashed faces. I could never bring myself to do that to any of nature’s perfect fruiting plants, yet for some reason still have those unused molds in a cupboard.

Instead, my family has a long history of doing whatever weird thing interests us. Our garage and front yard have hosted quite a few entirely youth-run projects such as building a hand-cranked forge, welding together a desk out of saw blades, carving runic greetings into stone, and assembling bones back into a skeleton. I guess things here may seem a bit odd. We’ve even scared our mail carrier.

The oldest evidence of the questing minds around here is a list of stats still posted on our frig. It started with a long-ago dinner table discussion about head size and ended when we measured each other’s head circumference. My daughter carefully wrote each person’s winning number. The list was updated as the youngest reached their late teen years, and the list has remained on our frig for nearly 20 years, proud reminder to all that my head is smaller than the heads of the man I married and the four children we spawned.

Because we’re a strange topic household, I wasn’t surprised this morning when my husband insisted his head had morphed. “These bumps weren’t here when I was younger,” he insisted, “and I swear my skull shrunk.”

I assured him that was unlikely. “I’m shorter than I used to be,” he reminded me, “so why can’t my skull shrink?”

I have no medical training at all, but am a whiz at speculation. I noted that spines and skulls are constructed differently, reminded him his height is surely affected by the spinal surgeries he’s had, and generally dismissed the possibility that one’s skull can shrink. He tends to be skeptical of my speculations.

So at 5:30 this morning I found myself measuring my husband’s head and letting him measure mine. Because we have that handy list of what our skulls measured nearly two decades years ago, we were horrified to find both our measurements were somewhat smaller. I tried to question the variables —- were we using the same measuring tape, was our hair substantially thinner, were we checking the exact same location on our heads?

He consulted his phone and quickly reported that, yes, as we get older bones in our faces slide and bones in our skulls shift. (Because life is vastly unfair, age-related changes happen much sooner in women than men.)

I insisted our skulls have to stay the same because they are the right size for our brains. “No,” he said sadly while continuing to Google. “Our brains shrink too, about five percent every decade after age 40.”

We texted each other bad jokes about our shrunken heads the rest of the day.

As my sliding skull bones and I slide through what’s left of my 50’s and beyond, I may take another look at those squash molds. Maybe if I wear one to bed each night, my shifting bony structure will take on the expression of a startled squash in yet another home science project.

Tips for Keeping One’s Brain From Shrinking

Avoid the blood sugar spikes common with processed food to avoid consequences of inflammation.

Avoid smoking, keep your blood pressure down, stay in a healthy weight range.

Keep alcohol consumption moderate and eat a diet rich in vegetables and fruits.

Get regular exercise, even increasing the daily distance walked helps (park farther away, take the stairs, etc).

Maintain strong, positive social ties with others.

Secret to Longevity

secret to long lifeWe humans, along with several other higher species, need elders and elders need us. From our early ancestors to today, this need is coded into our biology and shapes how we survive.

Take elephants as an example. They live in family groups led by the oldest females and walk long distances as they search for food. When the group encounters potential danger such as possible predators or unfamiliar elephants, the matriarch signals if they should continue grazing or gather into a defensive huddle. Researchers say families with the oldest matriarchs are best able to determine genuine threat.  The older the matriarch, the less energy wasted on false threats and the more calves  survive, a clear connection between wisdom of elders and success of the community.

Or take orcas. Female orcas stop reproducing around the ago of 50 and can live another 40 years. (Male orcas tend to die much sooner.)  Older females take on a leadership role. When hunting, the matriarch generally swims at the head of the pod and directs its movements, using decades of hunting experience to find elusive prey. Researcher Lauren Brent is quoted in a Smithsonian article saying,  “One way post-reproductive females may boost the survival of their kin is through the transfer of ecological knowledge. The value gained from the wisdom of elders can help explain why female killer whales and humans continue to live long after they have stopped reproducing.”

(I wonder if one of the many reasons elephants and orcas die many decades younger in captivity than they do in the wild has to do with being robbed of their essential roles as providers and wisdom-bearers.)

Which leads us to the evolutionary benefit of human grandmothers. Decades ago, anthropologist Kristen Hawkes developed what she called the “Grandmother Hypothesis.” Dr, Hawkes demonstrated (now with an updated mathematical model) that women historically live so far into their elder years because  there’s a significant survival advantage to the family when grandmothers pitch in. From the earliest roots of humanity, grandmothers gathered food, helped raise the young, and reinforced social cohesion. (In fact, field studies indicated men successfully brought meat home from the hunt less than four percent of the time while gathering by mothers and grandmothers provided the rest of the diet.)

Children whose grandmothers helped nurture them were more likely to survive, thereby  perpetuating genes that selected for women who experience mid-life menopause and vigorous old age.  Dr. Hawkes argues that grandmothers, in our evolutionary past, helped bring about bigger brains, pair bonding, even a doubling of the human lifespan. Grandmothers, she contends, make us human.

But what about grandfathers, aunts, uncles, other elders who live nearby? It seems the Grandmother Hypothesis doesn’t go far enough.  Evolutionary anthropologist Michael Gurven says increased survival and group cohesion has to do with “embodied capital” — the kind of knowledge that is acquired by experience and transmitted to others.  More effective hunting strategies and more skilled foraging is passed on by example, helping one’s people thrive.

Our very biology is rooted in and stirred by the need to protect our community. Even the sleep patterns of elders may stem from what benefits our tribe.  The dark hours have, throughout time, been the most dangerous for humans. But if we look at variations in sleep patterns across a spectrum of ages, we see why it wasn’t necessary to post sentinels at the campfire or at the doorway of the hut. Healthy old people tend to go to sleep earlier, don’t sleep as deeply, wake more easily, get up earlier, and may need less overall sleep.  Teens and young adults stay up later, sleep more deeply, and wake later.

As evidence, consider a recent study of members of a Hadza tribe living on the Tanzanian savanna. It was found that sleep variability meant at any point during the night, 40 percent of adults were wakeful and able to call an alarm if they perceived danger. Researchers call this the “poorly sleeping grandparent hypothesis.”

Today we consider the sleep habits of teens and elders aberrant compared to adults,  pathologizing variations that came to us as a legacy of ancestral strength built by diversity.

Elders need to live as long as possible in order to pass along their earned experience  to the youngest generations. But elders are valuable to a community for another evolutionary reason— essentially living on or sacrificing themselves to benefit the young. At least that’s what  theoretical biologist Josh Mittledorf  speculates in Cracking the Age CodeHe says our species long ago passed out of individual Darwinism into a sort of collective evolution as a way of protecting our communities from collapse.

According to Dr. Mittledorf, elders live longer or die younger based on biological responses to different community conditions.  Here’s how.  When times are very hard the population is at risk, particularly because it takes a great deal of exertion to get enough food to raise the young.  Elders feel the imperative to work hard and eat less for the good of their community. In many cases, they are also vitally needed to care for children.

In contrast, when times are easy the population is not at risk. Abundant food gained with less exertion means the young are likely to live to adulthood. Elders don’t feel compelled to do taxing work and they have plenty to eat. The community’s overall need is for more space to make room for an expanding population.

Let’s look at the messages an elder’s mind and body perceives in these two very different circumstances.

When times are hard, elders are needed by their families and communities. They sense they must thrive to keep their people going.  As research on aging tells us,  humans live longer in response to strenuous exertion, restricted calories, strong social connections, and a deep sense of purpose — precisely like these conditions.

But the imperative for survival may not be as strong when times are easy, food is abundant, and an elder perceives he or she isn’t essential to the family. Again, research on aging tells us that abundant food and minimal exertion, and perhaps a sense that we’re unnecessary or even in the way, leads to an earlier death.

We humans thrive when we are needed. That starts in our earliest years. Watch any toddler beam when he’s allowed to turn on the coffee grinder or run the hose over the car —- children yearn to take on real responsibility and to make a real difference to others. Strong social connections throughout life are so important that research affirms loneliness is as great a health risk as substance abuse, injury, and violence. In fact, chronic loneliness increases the chance of developing dementia by 64 percent and the risk of early death by 45 percent.  Our survival is linked to having an essential and valued role in the lives of others. 

Our whole beings know at the deepest levels that we live for one another. Time to embrace that, for the sake of our own lives and the sake of our collective lives.

“Your life and my life flow into each other as wave flows into wave, and unless there is peace and joy and freedom for you, there can be no real peace or joy or freedom for me. To see reality–not as we expect it to be but as it is–is to see that unless we live for each other and in and through each other, we do not really live very satisfactorily; that there can really be life only where there really is, in just this sense, love.”

~Frederick Buechner