Monday, April 6, 2020

THE BANE OF BREATHING – Should Twenty Feet Be the New Six Feet?

As the reputed “wonder man,” I reflect here on the rewards of noticing and celebrating life’s many small wonders. It’s a pretty easy gig when I’m feeling safe and secure; not so easy when the world is in turmoil and many of us fear for our lives.
Nonetheless, I’ve always preached that wonder lives virtually anywhere—indoors as well as out, in arctic cold and Saharan heat, all around us…and even within us.
It also exists in the ominous black tunnel of the worst imaginable crisis. In something as simple and taken-for-granted as a breath. Except that in this tunnel that breath could be deadly.

                                                       ~  //  ~  //  ~

I’m getting pretty good at paranoia. Not so much when life is normal, but for sure now that we’re facing a pandemic.

So, during these days of social distancing, I’m keeping a keener eye than ever on how people are behaving. And for the most part, I’m impressed with how thoughtful my fellow Minneapolitans are being, not just hugging their edge of the sidewalk, but swinging wide onto the lawns and boulevards. A generous interpretation of the CDC’s and NIH’s six-foot guideline.

PHOTO: New York Times

So how did they come up with that number, six feet? The answer suggests a question: What is it that those epidemiologists do? I mean what is their job? My guess is that they walk a fine line between recommending what they know people should do and what they figure people actually will do. Set the number too low and it won’t help; too high and folks might not feel like complying…or even believe you.
             How could we have let all those poor suckers
             believe that six feet of distancing was enough?
             It should have been twenty.

The epidemiologists’ goal, after all, is not to save everyone from exposure to COVID 19; it is to save the greatest percentage of us as is reasonably possible, given all the variables, including human nature. Perhaps they’ve decided that six feet is a measure most of us can understand. It’s all about “droplets,” they say.

As I observe my fellow human beings exhibiting a range of compliance from 0% to about 300%, it’s got me thinking a lot about those realities. That thinking, informed certainly by history, tells me it’s quite likely that, sometime well after the corona virus has gone back into hiding, we’ll all learn the truth about social distancing.

Palm-to-forehead, we’ll lament God, how could they have let all those poor suckers believe that six feet of distancing was enough? It should have been twelve…
or twenty.

It might come down to the definition of what is meant by a “droplet.” Current wisdom says COVID 19 is spread primarily by droplets of saliva or mucus expelled by a cough or sneeze. Subject to gravity, they supposedly fall to the ground before traveling six feet from an infected person.

But consider this: droplets aren’t the only liquid specks coming out of a person’s mouth. Normal exhaled breath is basically vapor, which is, after all, nothing more than still-smaller droplets. And this vapor, like other aerosols, disperses into the air, which can carry it considerably farther.

        To me you’re not average and very few of you are Joes. 

In a study of how flu viruses are propelled, environmental health researchers at the University of Maryland found that droplet dispersal does indeed happen not just through coughs or sneezes, but also in the vapor produced in normal breathing. MARYLAND STUDY

And then there’s wind.

Air moves. So I figured if I walk past a heavily-breathing runner or biker somewhere along East River Parkway at that officially-suggested six-foot distance, and there happens to be a breeze coming my way—even the air wake generated by that person’s movement—their breath could easily be on me, swirling around my head, in a matter of seconds.

And there’s the chink in my six-foot armor.

Further supporting my paranoia, an MIT researcher suggests the corona virus may be able to waft up to 27 feet from an infected person’s mouth—though this conclusion apparently has not yet been rigorously tested. MIT RESEARCH

          Consider double-arms length distancing as you might
          the filter used to remove lead from your drinking water.

So here’s what I’m asking of my loved ones: Please, please be careful out there. Use more caution than’s being asked of the average Joe. Because to me you’re not average and very few of you are Joes.

Keep in mind the illustrations above showing just how widely, and quickly, a human breath disperses. Think of that as you approach others—and be aware of which direction the wind is coming from.

Consider double-arms length distancing as you might the filter used to remove lead from your drinking water; if a filter fine enough to remove the 85 percent of it that's deemed safe by people who don’t even know you, wouldn’t 90 or 100 percent be much better?


jean said...

Makes me rethink my walking in this beautiful spring where, finally, I am not being pushed to get back at a certain time so that I can be somewhere else. I do have a mask now, so that helps a little bit. Stay safe and well, Jeff! Good to hear from you!

Jeffrey Willius said...

Hi Jean - Thanks for the comment. (I've replied twice and am trying it with a different browser -- sorry, I'm working on it.) Anyway, if this one works, I'm still walking a few miles a day. Minnesotans, as I mentioned, are being very good about distancing, but I'm about tripling it and avoiding any tight spaces where I might be forced too close. Be well my friend.

jean said...

Your comment/reply did post, Jeff, and it is so good to hear that you are staying safe. I walk a lot, too, and we are all hopping off and on the sidewalks (no cars much, which I love) to give space. I walked in my mask yesterday for the first time amd after figuring out that, yes, I could still breathe, I was fine. This has been an amazing spring, as they all probably are, but this is the first time I have not had the clock chasing me home so I really could take it all in.
Stay safe, Jeff, and keep on posting! :)

Jeffrey Willius said...

That's certainly one of the silver linings of this pall: being forced to slow down and perhaps notice more of the small wonders surrounding us all the time. Thanks for the encouragment, Jean1

Post a Comment

Thanks for visiting One Man's Wonder! I'd love to hear your comments on this post or my site in general.
And please stay in touch by clicking on "Subscribe" below.