Modern homes are typically built to keep people cozy or cool inside. But these tightly sealed, insulated dwellings can also trap noxious chemicals, allergens and more.
People who live in homes with poor air quality can experience health problems ranging from frequent colds and allergies to life-threatening diseases.
On the bright side, most people can easily upgrade the air at home. Here are some tips on getting started.
Why People Should Care about Air Quality
Poor air quality can lead to many different long and short-term health problems, say groups like the American Lung Association (ALA). These include:
Liver and kidney damage
These symptoms and problems are typically caused by volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the air. VOCs are gases emitted from thousands of different types of natural and man-made products, many of which are found in homes. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says that indoor concentrations of many VOCs are consistently higher—up to ten times higher—than outdoors.
Poor Air Quality Culprits
There is a multitude of everyday things that contribute to poor air quality at home. Some of the more obvious contributors include pet dander, smoke from burning a meal in the kitchen, and cigarette smoke. However, there’s a wide range of other things that can make indoor air less than healthy.
A common contributor to indoor pollution is building materials. New homes or renovations, which use pressed wood products like plywood as well as carpeting, paint, and adhesives, can release formaldehyde and other VOCs, according to the ALA. Even older materials, like some drywall and flooring, can release toxic chemicals into the air.
Air fresheners and cleaning products are supposed to make homes cleaner and more enjoyable, but they, too, can contribute to poor air quality. Studies show that these products can release toxic VOCs, such as formaldehyde, acetaldehyde, benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylenes, into the air.
The air in kitchens with wood-burning or natural gas stoves can also be toxic. Studies over the past forty years show that natural gas stoves and other gas appliances can release methane and nitrogen oxides (NOx) into the air, even when they aren’t in use. Particles released from wood-burning stoves can cause bronchitis, pneumonia, and asthma.
Measuring Air Quality
An easy way to test for poor air quality at home is to use an air quality monitor. The cost of these monitors can range from around $30 to $200, depending on the features. Some of the fancier versions will send an alert via phone when air quality reaches unsafe levels.
When shopping, be sure to look for a monitor that measures CO, CO2, VOC, and formaldehyde (HCHO). It’s also important to get one that can detect dust mites and other allergens. Devices that can detect these air quality menaces are labeled as PM 2.5 (for particulate matter less than 2.5 micrometers in size).
How to Keep Air Clean at Home
Once people understand what can cause poor air quality and how to track it, they’re ready to make their indoor air safer. Here are some things that can be done right away:
Stop using air fresheners or look for products that are “non-toxic.”
Use natural cleaning products.
Eat more raw foods or steam or bake foods to reduce the smoke caused by frying and searing.
Smoke or vape outside only.
Clean with a vacuum with a HEPA filter regularly to rid the home of pet dander and dust.
Use HEPA air purifiers throughout the home.
Change HVAC, air purifier, and vacuum air filters regularly, and ensure that the filters use HEPA filtration.
Open windows on low-pollution days to let out VOCs and let in fresh air.
Throw out food before it becomes moldy.
Clean home air vents regularly.
Modern residential building codes require kitchen ventilation, so use ventilation hoods on stoves whenever cooking.
Some long-term solutions to consider include removing carpeting—if air quality levels remain poor after one’s best efforts—or switching to electric appliances over gas water heaters, ovens, and heaters.
There has been a lot of buzz online about the air benefits of houseplants, but don’t get too excited. While houseplants have also been shown to improve indoor air quality, the effects are small, at best. According to the EPA, it would require 680 plants in a house to keep the air clean.
Don’t Forget to Take Outdoor Breaks
While practicing all of these ways to improve the quality of the air indoors, people shouldn’t forget to simply get outdoors for some fresh air. For those who live in an area with low pollution, the air outside can be up to ten times cleaner than indoor air.
Also, when at work, take a stroll outside during breaks or eat lunch outside. During the weekends take up an outdoor hobby, take a swing in a hammock, or go for a picnic with the family. Find any excuse to go outside for a more grateful and healthier respiratory system.