Indoor Air Quality
How to make your home a healthy place
Smog in urban areas often makes the news. But truth be told, air quality is often much worse inside our homes than outside. That’s because tens of thousands of chemicals, some synthetic and some found in nature, are used to make products commonly found in buildings. Many of these chemicals are benign, some are highly toxic, and most fall in that wide gray area in between.
When it comes to indoor air contamination, the biggest culprit in our homes is VOCs, a large class of chemicals that can evaporate, or offgas, from stuff that’s all around us, like particle board, carpet, paint, cleaning products, and materials treated with stain-resistant and wrinkle-resistant chemicals. VOCs can aggravate respiratory ailments like asthma, and have been linked to cancer and damage to nervous and reproductive systems.
Will exposure to VOCs and other indoor air pollutants, such as mold or wood smoke, make you sick? This may sound like a cop-out, but the answer is–it depends. It depends on the nature of the pollutant, your general health, the level of exposure and length of time you’re exposed, whether that pollutant might combine with other pollutants in your home or in your body to create a more dangerous compound, and other environmental and genetic factors. Without clear answers, health experts say it’s prudent to take commonsense steps to limit your exposure to polluting chemicals. You might want to take extra precautions if there are people in your household who are at higher risk of being harmed by indoor air pollutants. These include infants and children and people with asthma, other respiratory conditions, compromised immune systems, or chemical sensitivities.
What to do?
- Don’t bring pollutants inside. It’s easier to keep pollutants out in the first place than to get rid of them once they’re in your home. Protect your home by choosing low-VOC paints, furnishings, composite-wood materials, personal care products, and household cleaners.
- Be a good housekeeper. Good housekeeping and maintenance practices go a long way toward healthy air quality. Don’t use pesticides in or around your home. Make sure there are doormats inside and outside all exterior doors, and adopt a no-shoes-inside rule: much of the dirt and dust in our homes gets tracked in on our shoes. Dust and vacuum regularly. Take care of leaks and mold before they get out of hand.
- Trust your nose. If a product smells bad, don’t bring it into your house. (Unfortunately, the opposite isn’t always true: just because your nose doesn’t pick up a strong whiff of chemicals doesn’t mean the product is good for you.) Beware of products that are heavily perfumed–fragrances are often used to mask chemical odors.
- Filter the little stuff. Air filters can help with some air quality problems, but they are by no means a cure-all. They do trap secondhand smoke, dust, and small particles called microparticulates. But they cannot totally eliminate allergens like pet dander and dust mites, because these irritants do not constantly circulate through the air anyway. And unless they have carbon absorbents, filters do not reduce volatile organic compound (VOCs) or gases such as carbon monoxide. The most effective filters are the ones that trap the tiniest particles, because these do the most damage. So be to check at the machines’ ratings. An ultra high-efficiency model can trap particles as small as 0.3 microns. Beware of filters that generate ozone, which may actually aggravate breathing problems.
- Dilution is the solution to pollution. Improving indoor air quality can often be as simple as opening a window to let in fresh air. Ventilation is especially important when using noxious paints, cleaning products, or other chemicals inside the home. When cooking with gas, always use the exhaust fan to get rid of combustion byproducts like carbon monoxide. And run the bathroom exhaust fan during and after showers and baths: mold thrives on excess humidity.
- Ready to learn more? Check out our article, “9 Home Health Hazards“: it covers radon; VOCs; toxic chemicals in plastics such as BPA, phthalates, and PFOA; pesticides; mold; other biological contaminants such as pet dander, pollen, and dust mites; energy-related risks such as carbon monoxide, other combustion byproducts, and electromagnetic fields; banned building materials such as asbestos, lead-based paint, and wood preservatives; and emerging healthy-home issues.