For many of us, the notion of maintaining good indoor air quality is only as sophisticated as changing the furnace filter at regular intervals. However, for millions of Americans, poor indoor air quality is the source of respiratory problems, allergies, and other health woes.
Many of us give little thought to the materials that surround us and few of us realize that the air outside is much cleaner than the air inside our homes. We are surrounded by pollutants that include heat sources, building materials and furniture, carpets, cleaning products, and personal care products as seemingly innocuous as our deodorant and shampoo. And that's not even considering the substances we use that we know probably aren't good for us like tobacco, adhesives, and paint. In fact, by becoming more energy savvy and insulating our homes more efficiently, we easily lock pollutants into our air space without meaning to. One consequence is a version of "sick building" disease where you or members of your family suffer from impaired immune systems, pick up every little bug, or just don't feel well for no apparent reason. For people with asthma or other respiratory conditions, the consequences can be particularly harmful.
Because poor indoor air quality can affect us so profoundly, especially over a long period of time, it's essential that we understand what causes the problem and what we can do about it.
The US Department of Environmental Quality lists three ways to improve indoor air quality:
Start with the obvious. To improve indoor air quality, quit smoking. If you must smoke, take it outside. Send your children to preschool where their teacher will provide a short mantra: "Mommy, your lungs are going to turn black and you're going to die." (No kidding. My kids came home from school with that. Was I mad? No. What could I say? They were right!) As amazing a filtration system as your lungs are, they just can't hold up against the toxins in smoke, especially tobacco smoke. Secondhand smoke can be as bad as smoking yourself.
If you have a woodstove or fireplace, have it checked and the chimney swept every year if you use it. Make sure it is working correctly sending all combustion by-products up the chimney, not into your home and lungs. This also reduces the probability of carbon monoxide poisoning.
If you have a forced air furnace, replace the air filter every one to three months depending on the type of filter. A high-efficiency, pleated media filter with a MERV rating of at least 10 is best. Buy the best air filter you can afford. If you can only afford midrange and intend to change it regularly, that's fine. Often, you can buy several in a pack and get a year's supply for less than it would cost if you bought one every few months. (Many manufacturer's say their filters will last longer—up to three months. Check your filter monthly, though. If it looks dirty, replace it.) Also, have your furnace inspected annually to make sure it's running at peak efficiency.
Vent excess humidity. Bathrooms and kitchens need high-quality, functional exhaust fans to pull humid air outside. If you have only a recirculating fan over the range or stove, replace it as soon as possible with a fully vented exhaust fan. An additional benefit is having a cleaner kitchen because walls and ceilings won't accumulate that greasy cooking film as fast. A well-functioning exhaust fan is especially important if you are cooking with gas.
All moisture problems, whether leaks or humidity, should be corrected at the source. Repair leaks when you notice them. Both leaks under the sink and condensation on windows can lead to mold and mildew. A dehumidifier can help. Even overwatering the plants you bought to help with air quality can lead to the growth of unhealthy microorganisms.
If possible, replace wall-to-wall carpeting with sustainable, water-resistant flooring instead. Radiant heat in floors reduces the amount of airborne particulates and lowers energy costs. If that isn't possible, use cork, bamboo, or linoleum. All are relatively warm to the touch, easy to clean, and will not harbor dust mites, another major source of low indoor air quality. Sustainable materials have the added advantage of being kind to the environment and a much lower rate of harmful emissions.
Clean often. Invest in a high-quality, efficient vacuum cleaner or central vacuuming system. Even without carpets, use the vacuum to remove dust and particulates on walls, floors, and furnishings. Wash bedding regularly in hot water—at least 130 degrees to kill dust mites. For added insurance, dry bedding in a hot dryer.
Use area carpets for the coziness factor in the winter. In the spring, take them outside to beat the living daylights out of them, then store in a dry, dust-free storage area until next fall. The same goes for drapes or curtains. It's a lot like living at the beach (except without the sand) and much less work.
Open windows and leave them open as much of the year as possible. Install security devices so windows can only be opened partially if you live in areas where just throwing the windows open is not such a good idea. (Or install grilles for added security.)
If noise, city pollutants, or security make open windows an impossibility, invest in an air cleaner. Air cleaners come in a variety of models and types including table top, room size, and whole house systems. Do some research to find out whether several small air filters or a single mechanical, whole house air cleaner is right for your home.
If you have a remodeling project coming up, plan for indoor air quality as you design space requirements and specify materials. Find an architect and contractors who understand the importance of a healthy home and can support your goal of optimizing your indoor environment.
Purchase a test kit to test your home for radon. Radon gas has been identified as the second leading cause of lung cancer. As many as 15% of all US homes have elevated levels, so it makes sense to test for and resolve any radon issues your home has.
Start reading labels on everything you buy. Many building materials have adhesives, glues, formaldehyde, and other elements that "off-gas" or release volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into your environment. There are a many healthier, more sustainable materials available, but you have to read the label to find out. The same is true of cleaning products, personal care items, and even the sheets you sleep on. Be skeptical though—lots of manufacturers now label things as healthy and "green" but it's just clever advertising copy without substance.
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