Nitric acid, carcinogenic formaldehyde, volatile organic compounds, gaseous radioactive isotopes, toxigenic mold spores; they might sound like items from some Bond villain’s shopping list, but in actuality they’re just a handful of the common airborne pollutants found in high levels throughout American households. In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates air quality in the average American home or workplace contains 2 to 5 times the levels of pollutants found outdoors. Couple this with the EPA estimate that Americans spend 90% of their lives inside and you can see why they rank indoor air quality(IAQ) among the top 5 environmental health risks. But unlike many threats to our health and livelihood, the presence of pollutants in our home’s air is something we have quite a bit of control over. With some easy fixes you can drastically increase your home’s IAQ. Here are ten of the best ways to do so:
1. Ventilate Your Living Space
Since the energy crisis of the ’70s, American building and HVAC guidelines have pushed for tightly sealed, high-efficiency homes that preserve resources by keeping conditioned air inside the residences. Unfortunately, as we seal in air, we also seal in harmful air pollutants. The only fix for this problem? Ventilation.
And this can mean more than just opening a window. Many experts recommend a mechanical ventilation system that allows for.35 air changes per hour and that incorporates both general ventilation for the whole house and spot ventilation for problem areas such as the kitchen and bathrooms. Those looking to minimize energy loss can look into an Energy Recovery Ventilation System (ERV), a whole house solution that, as the name would suggest, recovers up to 80% of energy lost through ventilation.
2. Eliminate Second(and third)hand Tobacco Smoke in the House
Everyone knows that secondhand tobacco smoke contains more than 40 carcinogens, kills thousands of non-smokers each year and wreaks havoc on the lung development of children, but if for some reason you still aren’t convinced to take those cigarettes outside, let’s touch on the dangers of third-hand smoke.
Third-hand tobacco smoke refers to the residue that tobacco smoke leaves on walls, upholstery, clothing, skin, and other surfaces with which it comes in contact. This residue reacts with nitric acid, a common home air pollutant, to form tobacco-specific nitrosamines (TSNAs). TSNA’s caused by smoke residue find their way into people’s bodies through dust inhalation, absorption through the skin, and ingestion. And because this pollutant is largely the result of tobacco residue, it isn’t effectively eliminated through ventilation. Bottom line: don’t smoke, but if you do, keep it outside.
3. Minimize Radon Exposure Within your Home
This invisible, radioactive gas is a natural product of uranium decay occurring underground and seeps from the earth into buildings. It’s harmful when humans are exposed to even low levels of it over extended periods of time and is ranked the number 2 cause of lung cancer after tobacco. The worst affected are smokers who have up to 9 times the chance of developing lung cancer when they live in a house with high radon levels. But regardless of whether you smoke or not, protecting yourself from this invisible killer is essential.
The first step is to determine whether your home contains problem levels of the substance. Purchase a radon testing kit and when testing, remember that the EPA recommends residences maintain levels below 4 pCi/L, with 1.3 pCi/L being the average. If you do have high radon levels, hire a qualified professional to install a radon mitigation system ($800-$1200). These systems vent the gas directly from the ground to the air outside and can eliminate the majority of your home’s radon.
4. Cut Down on Airborn Combustion Products Through Proper Maintenance of Heat Producing Appliances
Stoves, furnaces, fireplaces, automobiles, and anything that generates heat through combustion, puts off harmful pollutants that negatively affect indoor air quality. Of these pollutants, two of the worst include:
- Carbon Monoxide (CO) – This scentless, invisible gas causes acute symptoms that include fatigue, disorientation, heart palpitations and even death.
- Nitrous Dioxide (NO2) – Symptoms resulting from NO2 inhalation include eye and lung irritation, asthma attacks, bronchitis and abnormal lung development in children.
Reduce levels of these two toxic gasses by keeping your furnace and all gas burning appliances properly maintained and having a technician inspect them once a year. Use mechanical spot ventilation around kitchen stoves, vent clothes driers to the outside, and avoid idling your car for long periods in the garage. To guard against Carbon Monoxide spikes in your home consider installing a CO detector($35-$85).
5. Clear Home of Unneeded Paints and Cleaners
Volatile Organic Compounds(VOC’s) are an unfortunate by-product of modern life and are found in everything from plastics to pressed wood products to synthetic fabrics. Some of the worst come from paints, cleaning products and other chemicals commonly found in the house. Aside from ventilation, the easiest way to limit exposure to VOC’s is to avoid keeping large amounts of cleaners and paints indoors. Throw out old, half-empty bottles of cleaning products and store your paints safely in an outdoor area.
6. Maintain Proper Humidity Levels
High levels of humidity in the home effect can play a major role in the spread of indoor pollutants. Mold and mildew thrive in humid climates and will fill your home’s air with allergy causing spores. Additionally volatile organic compounds are more quickly emitted in higher humidity levels. Keep humidity levels should be kept between 30% and 50% in order to ensure optimal air quality. Purchase a hygrometer to check your home’s humidity levels and consider purchasing a dehumidifier if levels are too high.
7. Eliminate and Prevent Mold Growth
As previously mentioned, mold grows anywhere there’s moisture. And with mold growth comes airborne mold spores, and when it comes to indoor air quality, mold spores are bad news. When inhaled, mold spores can irritate lungs, cause allergic reactions and exacerbate asthma. Keep surfaces in your home dry whenever possible and use detergent to clean any mold growth you find.
8. Keep your HVAC System in Working Order
Have heating and cooling systems checked annually to ensure they’re operating properly. Also have ducts checked for mold growth or leaks that could let in dangerous pollutants. Additionally, change your systems air filter every several months.
9. Be Aware of Unsafe Substances in Older Homes
Homes, built before 1960 often contain harmful substances once thought safe for use in residences. Two of the more notorious pollutants found in old homes include:
- Lead – Named by the Department of Health and Human Services in 1991 as “the number one environmental health threat to children in the United States.” As such it can cause impaired mental development, learning disability and damage to the central nervous system. Airborn lead particles come primarily from old, flaking paint.
- Asbestos – This potent carcinogen was once commonly used as insulation in American households and has been linked to serious conditions such as lung scarring and Mesothelioma. Asbestos in residences is most often found in the form of insulation.
So what should you do if you find these in your home? Well if they’re in good condition, you might not need to do anything. In fact it can sometimes be more dangerous to actually remove them as the disturbance can fill the air with high levels of the dangerous particles. But if they’re already in a state of deterioration or you’re planning on remodeling, clearing them from your house might actually be the safest bet. Just make sure to get professional help for the removal.
10. Avoid Ozone-Based Air Purifiers
Residential air purification systems using ozone gas to trap airborne pollutants are likely to be both ineffective and harmful. Studies have refuted claims that ozone removes significant amounts of indoor air pollutants. Even worse, the gas is the main component of smog and can cause respiratory issues when inhaled. When shopping for an air purifier, opt for models that don’t emit significant amounts of ozone.
And for the eleventh and arguably most important tip: get out of the house; or the office, or the mall, or the car, or wherever it is you choose to spend that EPA estimated 90% of your life. Maybe this technically isn’t a tip for improving indoor air quality, but nonetheless we stand by it. In addition to benefiting your lungs, time spent outdoors has been shown to reduce stress, boost mood, improve sleep quality, and fix a host of other health problems. So get out there and enjoy some fresh air, open space and sunlight…
…but remember to wear sunscreen, because we all know the EPA has something to say on that subject as well.