When it comes to air pollution, most people probably picture smog hanging over cities like LA. But did you know the air quality inside your home is often worse than the air quality outside?
It’s true. The Environmental Protection Agency states that indoor levels of pollutants may be two to five times higher than outdoor pollutant levels (and occasionally more than 100 times).
The good news? You can take steps to make sure the air in your home is safe to breathe. Here’s what you need to know about indoor air quality . . . and how to clean it up.
What does “indoor air quality” even mean?
Indoor air quality refers to how safe the air is to breathe in indoor environments. Consider how much time you and your family spends inside your home. You want to make sure the air you’re breathing is safe and free from pollutants that can cause things like headaches, runny noses, or worse (e.g. diseases such as lung cancer).
Poor air quality not only affects our health. According to the American Lung Association, poor air quality can contribute to “the structural degradation and building failures within our homes.”
This is why indoor air quality safety is so important.
What causes poor indoor air quality?
Causes vary widely:
- “Invisible” (e.g. odorless, colorless) culprits, such as radon and carbon monoxide
- Biological pollutants (e.g. viruses, bacteria, pet dander, mold)
- Cleaning products
- Combustion sources (e.g. oil, gas, kerosene, wood, coal, and so forth)
- Inadequate ventilation
- Improperly installed or misused appliances
- Tobacco smoke
Which pollutants are the most serious/toxic?
All of the items listed above adversely affect indoor air quality, but some pollutants are more serious. For example, carbon monoxide is odorless, tasteless, colorless, and lethal. A home with high levels of carbon monoxide can affect people within hours, even minutes.
Exposure to asbestos (which can exist in myriad materials like roofing and insulation) and radon (a naturally occurring radioactive gas that seeps into homes through cracks) can lead to different types of cancer. The American Lung Association says, “Indoor radon exposure is estimated to be the second leading cause of lung cancer in the U.S., responsible for at least 21,000 lung cancer deaths each year.”
And, of course, we all know exposure to second-hand smoke can lead to breathing issues and lung cancer as well.
What are some symptoms of poor indoor air quality?
The symptoms can run the gamut. Think runny noses to headaches to nausea to everything in between. And, sadly, symptoms are often worse in children since kids are more susceptible to indoor air pollutants due to their size. According to The National Safety Council, “Children breathe in 50 percent more air per pound of body weight than adults do.” In fact, childhood asthma can be greatly improved by taking simple measures to improve indoor air quality.
Here are some highly effective indoor air quality safety tips:
- Audit your home for culprits that contribute to poor air quality. Going through each room and looking for possible sources of pollutants is a smart first step. Be sure to look under cabinets in your kitchen and bathroom, since household cleaners are often the biggest offenders. Here’s a great resource on seven household toxins you should trash immediately. In addition, consider conducting a home energy audit, which will not only help you save money, but also help you identify ventilation issues.
- Measure and monitor. You can find radon-testing kits for your home in your local hardware or home improvement store. Install battery-operated carbon monoxide alarms in every hallway near sleeping areas. Test and change the batteries twice a year (the same time you change the batteries in your fire alarms). If you need a helpful reminder, do it when you move your clocks forward in the spring and back in the fall. Note: As of January 2015, 29 states (including California) have laws requiring carbon monoxide alarms in the home.
- Properly install and maintain appliances. Items such as stoves, furnaces, water heaters, and fireplaces can release unhealthy and/or toxic gases into the air if not properly installed and maintained. Always read the manufacturer’s directions and follow any maintenance directives. Remember to regularly clean and/or change filters in things like air conditioners and consider using a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter. Be smart and use certified technicians to maintain and fix complicated systems, such as furnaces and ducts. And never, ever operate a generator in the home or any enclosed structure (such as a garage or shed). Psst—learn about the 10 most dangerous everyday items in your home.
- Vent, vent, vent. You want to increase ventilation so that the bad air goes out and good air comes in. But keep in mind it’s not as simple as cracking a window. WebMD recommends “trickle ventilation,” which involves using a 10-inch high screen with extra filters. This “adjusts to most windows and allows fresh air in, and helps escort indoor pollutants out.” You’ll want to also make sure rooms that experience dampness (such as bathrooms) are properly ventilated so that you can avoid mold and mildew buildup.
- Be mindful how you clean. In addition to being aware of the types of cleaners you’re using, consider how you clean. For example, instead of using that fluffy duster that simply moves dust around, use a damp cloth. Vacuum regularly, and not just floors, but also mattresses, curtains, chairs, and other furniture—and don’t forget to change the vacuum bag.
- Do simple things that can have big effects. Have everyone who enters your home take their shoes off, so as not to track in dirt and other unwelcome gunk that can infiltrate the air. Say no to incense, scented candles, and air fresheners, which may contain irritants or even toxic chemicals. Opt for non-toxic fresheners like baking soda. Add some healthy “greens” to your space, meaning plants that can give your indoor air quality a boost. And, of course, just say no to smoking in the house.
Here’s to breathing a little more easily (and healthfully!) in our homes.
Photo By: Michael Coghlan, July 20, 2015 via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution.