Airborne Risk

One weekend during the expanse of quarantine, I found myself driving across the state during unprecedented wildfires. The twofold danger of the fires exists not only in the physical path of destruction from the blaze but the smoke which would blanket the American west coast. The highways I drove on were obscured by masses of orange-grey smoke and the towns I moved through on the border of Washington and Oregon, albeit briefly, boasted the worst air qualities in the world. Six months after becoming accustomed to wearing a mask to prevent COVID-19 transmission, I found myself doubly reliant on the protection to reduce the toxic air I inhaled each time I stepped outside. The wildfire smoke exemplifies the risks of atmospheric dispersal—a discourse of risk which has been driving many of the conversations of SARS-CoV-2 as the virus is increasingly understood to spread through airborne transmission. These dual disasters ask us to rethink the neutrality of air in the discourses of disease and environment.   

Air is a vital part of the environment and, as such, it tends to elide notice until something is amiss. Timothy Choy (2012), in his investigation of differential environments in Hong Kong, poses air as “a heuristic with which to encompass many atmospheric experiences” (127). Air may be inescapable but its quality, content, smell, feel, and experience are spatially variable. Importantly, air is also in constant motion—a property that “might offer some means of thinking about relations and movements—between places, people, things, scales—means that obviate the usual traps of particularity and universality” (Choy 2012, 125). As Choy tracks through his investigation of air quality discourse, air embodies different values which, unlike more solid forms, are reliant on the measurements of that which is substantiating them. To return to the example of the wildfires, a common discourse was one of frustration that, during the already existing quarantine of the COVID-19 pandemic, outdoor activities had become unsafe. Such rhetoric is predicated on having a safe place in which to quarantine and residing in no immediate danger from the blaze. Smoke is substantiated as an inconvenience rather than a grave danger to the self and surrounding environments. Elsewhere, the smoke would surely serve to substantiate more precarious realities.

Smoke signifies air which asks for interpretation while other particular components of air draw less attention to themselves. Awareness of the unconscious act of breathing comes with sensory input—that is, smells often serve to alert us to a change in the air. If breathing acts as the conduit between the air and the body, olfaction is one of the few systems which allow our conscious tracking of the atmospheres which permeate the body. Olfaction, as theorized by Hsuan L. Hsu (2018), “illuminates the biopolitical and affective dimensions of breathing—an involuntary activity that incorporates unevenly distributed material atmospheres into differentiated bodies and populations.” Smelling is then the sensory substantiation described by Choy which denaturalizes air into a measure of material difference. Smoke announces itself through an immediately distinct scent. This smell indicates a causal event. Just as smoke might substantiate varied risk realities over spatial and class divides, more persistent forms of air pollution beget different levels of awareness from those accustomed and unaccustomed to the environment. Similarly, the byproducts of quotidian consumption diffuse into our lives generate more subtle changes than the dramatic natural catastrophe of a wildfire. Time, place, and individual limits coalesce into these atmospheric interpretations. Airborne disease, however, poses the anxiety of the undetectable. Even the common cold, one of COVID’s fellow airborne viruses, leaves no sensory trace as it transmits to a new host.

Although disease is now understood to spread through particles imperceptible to human senses, past theorizations of transmission posited disease to be related to smell. Through the 19th century, “the miasma theory of disease emergence attributed diseases such as cholera to invisible atmospheric vapors emitted by decomposing organic matter” (Hsu 2018). While there is a definite correlation to justify this theory (consumption of spoiled food resulting in sickness), identifying miasma as the cause of disease was a flawed attempt to connect illness to human sensory understanding. Increasing COVID-19 denialism illustrates how airborne disease continues to challenge cultural perceptions of disease transmission. Consider the transmission of HIV as a foil. HIV is spread through direct contact with blood, semen, or vaginal fluid containing the virus; or, as we might say, it is a disease spread through touch. This was amplified into the fear and stigma which developed to accompany an HIV diagnosis. Recall the number of patients refused treatment due to their HIV diagnosis at a time when health practitioners were terrified of transmission from casual contact. Conversely, COVID-19 is a disease which seeps through the lowered barriers of casual contact. It stretches our sensory understanding as it is transmitted despite reduced physical contact in the aerosol particles which come from speaking, sneezing, and breathing. How do you substantiate the risk of COVID-19 when there is no sensory signal of risk?


Source: USA Today

Visualizations of COVID-19 which try to substantiate airborne risk have proliferated as a response. The diagram from USA Today shows in bright blue the potentially infected droplets which infuse the air surrounding the person. The heightened visibility of disease is meant to confer the dangerous reality of casual contact. A bolded “within 6 feet” echoes the six feet apart which has become emblematic of imaging this coronavirus. This image can be read as a means of avoiding transmission from others or, perhaps, more importantly, resisting spreading the disease yourself. As COVID-19 travels unevenly across racial and class lines, the concept of the self as that which can negatively impact the environment becomes increasingly important. Fear is often individualizing to the opposite effect. Returning to the concept of air as a heuristic, the transmission of COVID-19 has substantiated, in the absence of sensory ties, to xenophobia and disbelief. Disease does not exist in the air but in the bodies of the scapegoated Other or it simply does not exist at all.

Existing with the smoke made me painfully aware of breathing with each excursion outside residing in my lungs long after returning to the safety of indoors. The irony of this heightened awareness during a respiratory infection pandemic was not lost on me. Realistically, my breathing had been at risk since the first cases in January. Even the pandemic offers a more coherent sense of risk than the impact of long-term environmental pollution which is transforming metropolitan and industrial atmospheres. This is not to rank the potential calamities diffused through air but to highlight how air not only moves between sensing and non-sensing, but habitual entanglement and crisis awareness. A reliance on sensory understanding, as with the smell of smoke, allows for an unconscious disengagement from what might be transmitted beyond the reach of human senses or what might become normalized beyond conscious sensing. Rather than seeing air as an emptied backdrop to life, continuing to refigure air as that which moves between bodies, objects, spaces, and scales excavates a more complete methodology for understanding differential environments of risk.    


Choy, Timothy. 2012. “Air’s Substantiations.” In Lively Capital: Biotechnologies, Ethnics, and Governance in Global Markets, edited by Kaushik Sunder Rajan, 121-152. Durham: Duke University Press. 

 Hsu, Hsuan L. 2018. “Smelling Setting.” Modernism/modernity 3 (March).