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Why Is Air Filter Efficiency So Important to High-Altitude Cities?

By May 10, 2019 May 4th, 2020 No Comments
12–14 minutes to read

Learn why homes in alpine regions need high efficiency air filters and how air pollution in these areas affect ecosystems aside from outdoor and indoor air quality.

For years, many Americans have viewed high-altitude communities as places to get away from the hustle and bustle of urban life and breathe fresh mountain air for a change. Unfortunately, this is not quite the case in many of America’s high-altitude cities, where residents may face a greater need for high efficiency air filters due to high levels of air pollution.

Scientists now know that air pollution is greatly affected by changes in altitude. As one report notes, cities that sit 5000 feet above sea level have atmospheric pressures that are approximately 15 percent lower than pressures at sea level. What happens is that mobile sources of air pollution like cars and trucks designed to operate at one atmosphere end up performing less efficiently in these high-altitude environments. This inefficiency causes them to produce greater amounts of airborne pollutants, particularly carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons, than cars and trucks at sea level.

“This leads to the photochemical smog problem that has plagued cities like Salt Lake, Utah and Denver, Colorado,” explains Camfil USA’s Charlie Seyffer, Manager of Marketing & Technical Materials for commercial air filters and 37-year ASHRAE member and active committee participant. “Worse, the higher levels of solar radiation in higher altitudes exacerbate the problem, triggering reactions between gaseous pollutants and solid particles to create even more smog.”

And according to a recent study, high levels of air pollution in high-altitude environments also present bad news for ecosystems.

How Poor Outdoor and Indoor Air Quality Affects Alpine Ecosystems

A recent study conducted by researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder found that air pollution can wreak havoc on high mountain ecosystems, with the effects lingering on for years even if we were somehow able to take away the air pollution right away.

The study, which was published in the journal Ecological Applications, suggests that even a dramatic reduction in nitrogen pollution may not be enough to reverse the damage to various ecosystem components caused by years of exposure to high levels of airborne pollutants. Long-term exposure to nitrogen oxides causes soil acidification, which reduces nutrient availability and affects plant growth.

According to William Bowman, a professor in CU Boulder’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (EBIO) and the study’s lead author, their findings reinforce the known effects of nitrogen pollution and emphasize the importance of sensitive standards to reduce its impact on the environment.

While nitrogen is a critical nutrient for life, man-made activities, particularly agriculture, manufacturing, and industrial processes, have increased nitrogen oxide levels over the last two hundred years. This increase has led to a surge in literature examining the harmful effects of nitrogen on air quality, water quality, soil acidity, and biodiversity.

Importance of High Efficiency Air Filtration Systems in High-Altitude Homes and Buildings

Severe air pollution in high-altitude cities is more common than you think. Denver, for example, was recently named by the American Lung Association as the 14th most polluted city (in terms of ozone) in America in its 2018 State of the Air report, prompting interest in high efficiency air filtration systems and home air purifiers.

The Mile High City has long struggled with a brown cloud hanging over its skyline caused by smog formed by air pollution emissions from cars and trucks, an expanding oil and gas industry, and the city’s location, which is conducive to trapping air pollution against the mountains.

“You see this all the time in areas that have the right mix of geography and air pollution sources,” notes Seyffer. “The mixture of air pollutants contained in valleys produces ozone and smog, which can’t escape because of temperature, elevation, and topographical features.”

The same thing happens in Salt Lake City during the winter and summer months, when temperature inversions trap airborne pollutants in the Salt Lake Valley, causing air quality to deteriorate and stay that way for weeks at a time. In fact, the state government in Utah has formulated a Recess Guidance for Schools, which is basically “A set of recommendations for when elementary school students should stay indoors for recess based on current air quality.”

Home Air Filtration Systems in Alpine Cities in Europe

Likewise, alpine regions in Europe are struggling with high air pollution levels brought about by the same factors. Much of the Arve Valley, which is home to several idyllic ski resorts near Chamonix-Mont-Blanc, also has some of the worst air pollution levels in all of France. In fact, the incidence of bronchitis, asthma, and other respiratory issues among residents in the French Alps has grown in recent years due to consistently high air pollution levels, emphasizing the importance of home air filtration systems in the region.

Today, the Arve Valley suffers from dangerously high levels of fine (PM10) and ultrafine (PM2.5) particulate matter—small enough to enter the deepest recesses of the lungs. And during the winter months, levels of these airborne pollutants surge due to temperature inversion—a phenomenon where cool air is trapped in the deep mountain valleys by warmer air at the top.

That same cool air also carries air pollution that can’t rise or disperse into the atmosphere. And, in the case of the Arve Valley, the mountains surrounding the area block wind that could have helped push the air pollution out of the area.

Fighting Air Pollution Triggered by Inversion with Home Air Purifiers

An atmospheric inversion is an event where a combination of geographic, temperature and atmospheric conditions stops air from circulating, trapping it close to the ground. Usually, this phenomenon simply refers to cooler air that’s trapped at ground level by a top layer of warm air. In cities that constantly experience inversion, like Salt Lake, Denver, and parts of California, home air purifiers ensure that the air inside homes and buildings is kept free of airborne pollutants like dust particles, ozone, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide, among others.

And while inversion may not seem all that serious, it can have disastrous effects. In 1948, a thick blanket of smog caused air quality to plummet in the town of Donora, Pennsylvania, leaving 27 people dead in a single weekend and twice as many in the weeks that followed. The spike in air pollution also caused hundreds of residents to fall ill; later reports suggest that the town’s death rate continued to be impacted by the catastrophic air quality event for another 10 years.

The anomaly has since been referred to as the 1948 Donora Smog, and was instrumental in helping scientists develop our understanding of smog pollution exacerbated by atmospheric inversions.

Choosing Home Air Purification Systems for Homes in High Elevations

If you live in a city plagued by air quality problems triggered by atmospheric inversions, home air purification systems offer an effective way to protect your home or building from the health risks of air pollution exposure. But before you go out and buy an air filter system, it’s important to limit your options to solutions built by reliable air filter manufacturers. The truth is that many companies take advantage of the demand for air purifiers by creating subpar air filter systems that promise true “HEPA-like” performance.

Bottom line? Stay away from bargain filters. At Camfil USA, we are committed to helping protect homes, commercial buildings and industrial facilities from air pollution by making your air cleaner through high-quality air filter systems. Talk to our team to learn how you can improve your indoor air quality today, or explore our catalog of high efficiency air filters to learn more about our product line.

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Lynne Laake

Camfil USA Air Filters

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