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EPA contest seeks ideas for a cheap air cleaner for wildfire season

With wildfires posing a growing public health threat, clogging Bay Area skies with unprecedented levels of smoke in 2020, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is offering a $10,000 reward to whoever can come up with a cheap way to clean dangerous pollutants out of indoor air.

The EPA is teaming up with state, local and tribal governments in the western United States to create new ways of protecting people driven indoors by unhealthy levels of smoke during wildfire season.

Current air filters are expensive to buy and maintain, according to an EPA news release announcing the contest. They are also reliant on electricity, which is often shut off by utilities during wildfire season to prevent their power grids from sparking fires.

“People face strange challenges when trying to avoid smoke,” EPA spokesman Alejandro Díaz said in a statement. “For example, smoke comes in through the dryer vent. People sometimes resort to using plastic wrap to tape up doors, windows, dryer vents, etc. to keep smoke out.” Some people pair box fans with air filters, he wrote, but the fan motors tend to heat a room up.

“We have heard of new types of window screens in development or even curtains that might filter out pollutants,” Díaz wrote.

Cheap to the EPA means a technology that could ultimately cost no more than $100 per unit. Winning technologies should be able to reduce particulate matter — a damaging component of wildfire smoke — in a room by 80% in an hour, according to contest criteria posted to EPA’s website.

Last year, nearly 10,000 fires burned more than 4.2 million acres in California, making 2020 the largest wildfire season recorded in modern California history, according to Cal Fire. Smoke from the fires in California and neighboring states filled the air with unhealthy levels of gas and ash, prompting Bay Area air quality regulators to issue more Spare the Air alerts — a warning that air quality is poor, triggering a ban on burning wood both in fireplaces and outdoors — than ever before.

The Bay Area Air Quality Management Division issued a record 52 Spare the Air alerts in 2020, including an unprecedented run of alerts on 30 consecutive days through Sept. 16, agency spokeswoman Kristina Chu said.

On bad air quality days, regulators recommend people avoid exertion and stay indoors as much as possible. Staying indoors, however, is not complete protection from the smoke, prompting the EPA’s hunt for a filtering technology cheap enough for widespread use. The EPA challenge is open and accepting proposals through May 17. The agency is offering $10,000 each to up to five finalists.

Lacking any such widespread technology, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends closing doors and windows during periods of intense smoke, running an air conditioner (for those who have one) with the fresh air intake closed and keeping any air filters clean. Bay Area Air Quality Management Division officials make similar recommendations, Chu said, and recommend visiting “cooling centers” government agencies often open during heat waves or poor air quality events.

Research increasingly indicates the health impacts of wildfire smoke are far more widespread, and by some measures more deadly, than the flames themselves. In one estimate, researchers at Stanford University calculated that thick concentrations of smoke from 2020’s wildfires were responsible for at least 1,200 and as high as 3,000 California deaths between Aug. 1 and Sept. 10.

You can reach Staff Writer Andrew Graham at 707-526-8667 or andrew.graham@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @AndrewGraham88

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