Is Air Quality Worse in the Winter?

winter wellness, IAQ
Winter impacts more than your commute! Even in your cozy home, air quality could be at risk.

Ever notice how car exhaust is much more visible in the cold winter months? While the level of pollution emitted from things like cars and factories remains somewhat constant throughout the year, it’s no coincidence that it’s easier to see that pollution in the winter.

To answer the title of this post: Yes, cold temperatures in the winter can lead to worsened air quality (we explain below why that is). And that means you should be vigilant about creating a healthy home environment during the winter months.

Here are some useful tips from the EPA for improving the quality of air in your home. These are good practice any time of year, but especially when the temperatures drop.

So, why exactly is air quality worse in the winter? Let’s take a look at some of the factors involved.

Increased Pollution

No one likes a cold car, and it’s common to see lots of idling cars in the winter as people wait for them to warm up before driving off. That leads to a slight uptick in vehicle emissions.

Staying warm is true for indoor environments as well, so fireplaces, furnaces, and wood-burning stoves are hard at work all winter long. Beyond individual home usage, energy production (often in the form of coal-burning) and consumption skyrocket during the winter in large factories and businesses.

More Time Indoors

It can be hard to leave your warm bed on a cold morning, and just as difficult to walk outside into frigid temperatures. It’s no secret that we all spend more time indoors during the winter, and that can make us more susceptible to the effects of poor ventilation and increased carbon dioxide levels.

Even things that are positive for efficiently heating homes can lead to air quality concerns for the people inside. Layers of insulation and tight seals on doors and windows can prevent fresh outdoor air from circulating indoors. For that reason, consider ways to increase the distribution of fresh air in your home using things like whole-home ventilation systems and air purifiers.

Temperature Inversion

Cold temperatures can trap pollutants near the ground through a process called “temperature inversion.”

This happens when a layer of warmer air sits above the colder air at the surface, acting like a cap that traps in pollution and allergens. This is especially common in areas where wood-burning is common practice during the winter.

This is how things like smog, smoke, and carbon dioxide can stay around for long periods of time, and they usually don’t get broken up until a weather event (wind, rain, snow) comes through the area.

Diagram courtesy of the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association website.

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