Because of changing circumstances, more and more people are preferring to stay indoors for work, school, and even for leisure. It is, therefore, becoming increasingly important for homeowners to make sure that the indoor air quality of their homes is in good and healthy condition.
However, there could be some factors that can put the quality of your breathing air at risk.
Can the air quality in your home make you sick? What gives rise to the deteriorating air quality of many homes today? Is your family in danger of breathing in these indoor air pollutants? How can you combat indoor air pollution and improve your home’s indoor air quality?
Let’s air out the answers to these important questions.
How Can I Deal with Air Quality Problems?
Indoor air quality or IAQ is the state or quality of the air within and around a house, a building, or a structure. It is proven to have a great impact on the physical condition, comfort, and well-being of the inhabitants of the building. IAQ in the United States is regulated by the US Environmental Protection Agency or EPA.
There are common pollutants that can compromise the indoor air quality of your home. Some of these are caused by typical household items such as building materials and furnishings, gas-powered equipment, tobacco products, chemicals used for cleaning and repair, and even central heating and air conditioning systems, to name a few.
Poor indoor air quality can lead to minor irritations and discomfort for most people induced by coughing, sneezing, headaches, colds, sore throats, skin rashes, eye irritation, lethargy, dizziness, and memory lapses.
But in some cases, the dismal state of indoor air can also result in severe reactions and health hazards to people who are more susceptible to sickness. These individuals include older members of the family, infants and young children, and those with pre-existing medical conditions. Asthma, allergies, heart and lung diseases, and even cancer can be brought about by long-term exposure to poor IAQ.
You can try these five effective but easy and practical steps to improve your indoor air quality:
- Maintain your house’s cleanliness. Have a regular schedule and organized routine in house cleaning. Removing clutters around your home and constant vacuuming can decrease allergens such as dust, pollen, and animal dander. Consider switching to dust-mite-proof bedding, pillows, mattresses, and drapes. Double your efforts in cleaning if you have pets at home.
- Replace filters and clean the ducts. HVAC filters trap airborne pollutants from your indoor air. But no matter how high-grade your filters are but you don’t clean them (if they are the washable type) or replace them when they are already worn out can corrupt your indoor air instead of improving it. Regularly clean your ductwork as well to eliminate dirt in those confined spaces.
- Enhance your ventilation. Invest in a mechanical or fresh air ventilation system. Use kitchen or bathroom exhaust fans. Open doors and windows from time to time, but especially when painting, welding, sanding, or soldering. You can also move these activities or other pollutant-generating hobbies outdoors.
- Take advantage of air purifiers and dehumidifiers. Modern air cleaners are more effective in removing indoor pollutants than HVAC filters can. Place air purifiers in communal areas in your home and dehumidifiers in humid places such as the basement.
- Be wise in growing indoor plants. Some houseplants produce spores and pollen that can trigger allergies. Watering these plants also increases the moisture level indoors and can lead to mold problems. The use of harmful pesticides and fertilizers for these plants can ruin the air quality.
Truly, the air quality inside your home should never be ignored or disregarded. While IAQ has been closely monitored by the EPA for many years now, why is it more critical nowadays to pay attention to how clean your indoor breathing air is?
The reason is that a new generation of people has begun, whose way of life and activities has been very distinct from the generations who live before them.
The Rise of the Indoor Generation and Indoor Air Pollutants
The term “indoor generation” has been made popular through a campaign by VELUX, a company from Denmark specializing in windows and skylights. Stepping beyond its aim to manufacture and sell its products, this Danish organization created global awareness through its videos and advertisements about the effects of the indoor environment on people’s health and well-being.
The uniting theme of the campaign is to describe the people of today who spend 90% of their lives indoors—inside their houses, automobiles, offices, and places for entertainment. With the help of technology, this generation has managed to fill their homes with things vital for living, with minimal need to head outside anymore.
The videos boldly declared the indoor generation’s health is in great danger: primarily, because of the lack of sunshine and fresh air, encouraging the growth of dampness and mold. Additionally, since most homes are sealed and closed off for heating and air conditioning purposes, air pollutants and biological contaminants could not easily get out.
The EPA backed up the authenticity of these statements about the state of indoor air, and even added that “the concentrations of some pollutants are often 2 to 5 times higher than typical outdoor concentrations.”
It is scary to think, then, that despite being away from all the combustions and contamination found outside, we could have our very own health risk at home: indoor air pollution.
Indoor Air Pollution: How and Why?
Contrary to what most people are willing to believe, you can still be exposed to air pollution right inside the very comfort of your home. Indoor air pollution is defined as “chemical, biological, and physical contamination of indoor air. It may result in adverse health effects,” according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
The 2019 report by Our World in Data, an online publication that uses research and data to illustrate and discuss large global problems, released statistics relevant to indoor air pollution.
The reputable source says, “indoor air pollution is a leading risk factor for premature death. It is [also] responsible for 1.6 million deaths each year.” Low-income countries are more susceptible to this growing world problem, those from the first world and prosperous nations should not feel lax at all. Why not?
The New York Times explained that every household has the potential of having indoor air pollution. One obvious reason is that excessive amounts of toxic pollutants can be found in quite common items and in the very air we breathe at home.
“Nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, formaldehyde, radon (a radioactive product of radium), sulfur dioxide, asbestos…hairsprays, deodorants, oven cleaners, paints, pesticides, laundry aids, floor and furniture polishes, glue and, ironically, air fresheners,” are some of the typical things that could pollute the air your family breathes every day.
Another reason why wealthy households should be more worried about their indoor air quality is that the indoor air pollution problem is aggravated in tightly-sealed homes, which is how most affluent houses are built for heating and air conditioning purposes.
“In a typical ”leaky” house, all the air is exchanged with fresh outdoor air about once an hour, but a well-sealed house may take four to 10 times longer to completely replace the indoor air. This allows an enormous buildup of potentially harmful substances in the air,” The New York Times continued.
As a conscious homeowner, what pollutant sources should you look out for?
What is Causing Your Indoor Air Problems?
The EPA outlined the primary sources of indoor air quality problems. We will discuss some of these below, their types and forms, and how it can impact your health and well-being.
Fuel-Burning Combustion Appliances
Nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, and hydrocarbons are byproducts of burning gas, making them dangerous air pollutants.
Cookstoves and heaters that make use of gas, natural or liquid propane, are major sources of nitrogen dioxide. While carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons are easily found in wood or coal-burning stoves, fireplaces, gas ranges, self-cleaning electric ovens, and gas-powered vehicles parked in garages that are attached to or beneath the house.
Nitrogen dioxide brings forth lung problems such as “increased inflammation of the airways, worsened cough and wheezing, reduced lung function, increased asthma attacks, and [a] greater likelihood of emergency department and hospital admissions.”
Meanwhile, carbon monoxide is detrimental to anyone’s health when breathed in because “it displaces oxygen in the blood and deprives the heart, brain, and other vital organs of oxygen. Large amounts of CO can overcome you in minutes without warning — causing you to lose consciousness and suffocate.”
Finally, the worst cases of hydrocarbon exposure are coma, seizures, irregular heart rhythms, or damage to the kidneys or liver.
These nicotine-containing products can be smoked, chewed, or sniffed. Some of its forms include cigarettes, cigars, bidis, kreteks, loose tobacco in a pipe or hookah (water pipe), chewing tobacco, snuff, dip, snus, and snuff.
Even if only one or a few members of your household smoke, there are still possible dangers that could face the entire family.
Children of smoking parents are more likely to have more respiratory issues and chances of being asthmatic compared to other children. Residents of a house or a building, even adults, are also endangered to have impaired lung function. While spouses of smokers have an average decrease of four years in their lifespan, and an increased risk of developing lung cancer, according to research.
Building Materials and Furnishings
The EPA pinpointed three major sources of this type of pollutant: 1) “Deteriorated asbestos-containing insulation”; 2) “Newly installed flooring, upholstery, or carpet”; and 3) “Cabinetry or furniture made of certain pressed wood products.”
The fiber strength and the heat resistance of asbestos make it an ideal material for insulation and fire-proofing. However, if asbestos fibers are inhaled, “they may get trapped in the lungs and remain there for a long time. Over time, these fibers can accumulate and cause scarring and inflammation, which can affect breathing and lead to serious health problems,” said the National Cancer Institute.
Plywood, pressed wood, particleboard, and medium-density fiberboard (MDF) are commonly glued together by formaldehyde. If exposed to high levels, formaldehyde can irritate the skin, eyes, nose, and throat, and even some forms of cancer.
Products for Household Cleaning and Maintenance, Personal Care
Pesticide is one of the ordinary forms of household chemicals that are used to kill bacteria, fungi, insects, and rodents. Yet, these sprays, liquids, sticks, powders, crystals, balls, and foggers are essentially poisonous according to the EPA.
Acute health effects of pesticide exposure are “stinging eyes, rashes, blisters, blindness, nausea, dizziness, diarrhea and death,” informed the Californians for Pesticide Reform.
Seemingly harmless hobbies indoors such as painting using oil lead-based, soldering, and stained glass-making can make a person vulnerable to lead poisoning. If lead is improperly removed from surfaces through dry scraping, sanding, or open-flame burning, lead particles can circulate into your breathing air and pose health hazards.
The Centers for Disease Control or CDC warns against exposure to high levels of lead as it may result in “anemia, weakness, and kidney and brain damage. Very high lead exposure can cause death.”
Too much humidity is like an open invitation to mold, mildew, viruses, and bacteria to infest your home. If your air conditioning system is not well-maintained, it will fail to remove the excess moisture from your house which will make it a breeding ground for these biological contaminants.
Additionally, an AC filter that is not regularly replaced or cleaned will soon form a dirt buildup consisting of dust particles, pet dander, pollen, and other minuscule allergens.
Hypersensitivity pneumonitis, allergic rhinitis, and asthma are some of the sicknesses triggered by uncontrolled moisture indoors, alongside dizziness, lethargy, fever, and digestive problems.
Protect Your Indoor Air at All Costs
Now that you are more well-informed about certain products, items, and chemicals found to be indoor air contaminants, you would do well in finding ways to minimize, if not eliminate them.
Five factors can hugely contribute to the overall indoor air quality of your home. Managing them well can spell out the difference between a poor IAQ and a good one.
Regular House Cleaning
You may think this does not need to be said, but thoroughly cleaning your house regularly can make so much difference in the quality of your air.
Realistically speaking, you cannot expect your air to be clean if you have endless clutter, unwashed carpet, and dirty linens in your home. Smaller particles may not be visible to the naked eye, but they are just as destructive as other contaminants.
Harvard Health Publishing suggests running the vacuum on carpets and rugs at least once or twice a week, preferably with top-quality filters such as the high-efficiency particulate absorbing filter (HEPA filter).
You can also invest in dust-mite-proof beddings, pillows, and mattresses. The dust mite is one of the leading indoor allergens in American homes.
Clean Filters and Ducts
Air conditioners and furnace filters serve an important role in maintaining a good state of indoor air quality.
As they draw in the air from your living spaces to be processed, they block and trap sizable particles they come across with. The filters’ primary duty is to protect the internal components of your HVAC systems from mechanical damage by these particulates, but in doing so it helps to clean your breathing air as well.
The filters prevent air pollutants from getting circulated back to your home. Specialized filters such as the HEPA filters can filtrate up to 99.97% of dirt particles larger than 0.3 microns!
But if you neglect to clean or replace your HVAC filters, they will certainly have dust and dirt buildup which defeats their purpose. The danger is when these filters get so jammed up with pollutants that they mix in with the air blown back by your AC or furnace.
Your ductwork has the same strong potential of working against you and ruining your IAQ if you don’t clean them regularly.
Have a rigid schedule for cleaning your HVAC filters and ducts. You can seek professional help if you want a thorough job done.
Despite the comfort and security that your heating and air conditioning systems provide you, you may very well think about how you can increase ventilation and sunlight in your living spaces. Doing such steps will invariably increase the quality of your indoor air and your quality of life as well.
Cooking with fuel, smoking, painting, and working with other household chemicals get stuck inside your home if they have no way to get out. Make wise use of exhaust fans in your kitchen and bathroom to get rid of the toxic particles in the air along with their smells. Or, if at all possible, dedicate such pollutant-generating activities outside to minimize their impact on your indoor air quality.
Some mindful homeowners decided to install a mechanical ventilation system or a fresh air ventilation system. This ventilation system works with your air conditioner or furnace by pushing out airborne pollutants and replacing them with “fresh”, natural air from outdoors in a controlled manner.
Air Purifiers and Dehumidifiers
While it is true that your air conditioner has a built-in filter, and to some extent, dehumidifies your space, it is not its main responsibility. The AC’s focal job is to lower the temperature and protect you from hot damp weather.
So if you are serious about purifying your indoor air and removing excess moisture from it, do not shy away from using air purifiers and dehumidifiers.
They are especially helpful if you have kids or elderly ones at home, or if you are living with someone who has respiratory issues or is immunocompromised.
Most air purifiers are portable so you can place them in specific rooms for your family member who has these special needs. But if you want to purify the entire space equally, you can put it in communal areas where your family spends most of their time.
As for the dehumidifier, it is ideal to place them in damp spaces such as the basement. This way, you can significantly minimize the growth of mold and mildew, which are common allergy triggers.
Less Indoor Houseplants
There has been a long-standing misconception about how plants can purify indoor air. While there is some science that can back up the cleaning power of some plants, the latest research shows that it requires almost a forest-like quantity of plants indoors to perform this level of purification.
But let’s say you only want houseplants because of their aesthetic appeal and purifying the air could only be just a bonus. Still, you may be sacrificing your indoor air quality for mere beautification.
If you’re not careful, putting certain kinds of plants can be generous allergen sources. Indoor watering of these plants can also increase the level of moisture in your home unnecessarily, making it more humid than your liking.
Finally, if you use fertilizers or pesticides in your indoor planting hobby, you could very well be adding toxic chemicals to your indoor air.
Harvard Health Publishing made another direct suggestion about this matter when it says, “Keep the greenery outdoors.”