Easy ways to improve indoor air quality at home
Here’s how to improve the air quality in your home
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Check out the entire Climate Control series to protect your home from the effects of climate change
It’s one thing to recognize that climate change is exacerbating air pollutants and creating increasingly frequent conditions of low outdoor air quality.
But, it’s another thing when you realize that the air quality in your home needs to be improved. We can monitor the air quality inside to help ensure there are no dangerous gasses or particulates present. What can you do to fix it?
Here’s everything you need to know about how to improve the air quality in your home.
What are the most common pollutants found in the home?
We spoke to Taylor Gillespie, strategic communications advisor at the Environmental Protection Agency, who explains, “There are many different types of pollutants typically found in homes, including particles, biologicals—mold, bacteria, pests, dust mites, volatile and semi-volatile organic compounds (VOCs/SVOCs), gasses, including combustion by-products like carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide, heavy metals such as lead, and radon.”
“The type and amount of any pollutants found in any home vary and are dependent on many factors,” she continues, “including [the building’s] air flow and indoor environmental factors such as temperature and humidity, the occupants, and their activities.”
While it makes sense to assume that a lot of in-home pollutants come from hazardous materials like paint thinners or other noxious chemicals, there are often dangers to everyday items.
Gillespie says that off-gassing from things like building materials and home furnishings can trigger sensitivities, as can products like air fresheners, which can release pollutants more or less continuously.
“Other sources related to occupant activities, like smoking, cleaning, redecorating, or doing hobbies, release pollutants intermittently,” she states.
In addition, certain appliances might also release high levels of pollutants, especially if they’re unvented, malfunctioning, or improperly used.
A home’s indoor air quality can be affected by what’s outside, as well.
“The pollutants in your home are also affected by the environment outdoors, which may be different depending on local outdoor sources, location of the home, and weather or climatic conditions around the home,” Gillespie says.
Proximity to high concentrations of auto exhaust, industrial fumes, urban heat islands, or wildfires can all be external sources of indoor air pollution, just to name a few.
Employ three basic strategies to improve indoor air quality
You’ll want to identify the main source(s) that might be compromising your air quality; it’s important to remember that all pollutants are different.
While some, like smoke or some VOCs might be identified by the presence of an odor, many pollutants have no smell. Pollutants such as radon and carbon monoxide are colorless and odorless, so it’s important to understand that being able to see or not see or to smell or not smell a pollutant cannot be used to indicate the level of potential risk or harm associated with a pollutant.
The three basic strategies to improve indoor air quality are source control, ventilation, and supplement air cleaning/filtration, Gillespie says.
1. Source control
To start, you’ll want to eliminate individual sources of pollution or try to reduce their emissions.
Monitor stoves, oil burners, and other appliances, especially older models, to ensure they release proper emissions, and seal and properly store items containing VOCs, such as paints and solvents, preferably out of the home in a shed or garage.
Another approach to lowering the concentrations of indoor air pollutants in your home is to increase the amount of outdoor air coming indoors.
As long as the air quality outside isn’t a concern, ventilate your home by opening doors and windows, or run bathroom fans that exhaust outside, especially if you’re engaging in activities that can generate high levels of pollutants like painting or paint stripping, heating with kerosene heaters, cooking, or doing activities like welding, soldering, or sanding.
3. Air purification
Finally, as a supplement to source control and ventilation, using high efficiency air filters that will work in your HVAC system, and using properly sized and maintained air purifiers in certain circumstances can help reduce some pollutants indoors.
Gillespie notes that the EPA does not recommend using air purifiers to reduce levels of radon and its decay products; to handle that, a home radon test is necessary to identify radon levels, and hiring a radon mitigation professional who can help fix or retrofit your home to reduce the flow of radon into it may be necessary.
What else works to clear the air, and what doesn’t?
Eliminating the sources of pollutants, proper ventilation, and filtering the air are the most important components to ensuring that the air you breathe in your home is healthy, but there are a couple of other options we wanted to explore to supplement these solutions.
In the last two years, we’ve all become accustomed to wearing masks, and while many of us are happy to reduce the amount of mask-wearing, it still seems like a valid way to filter out any unsavory particles in the air.
So, does regular, continuous mask-wearing help us breathe healthier air? Yes and no. While wearing a surgical mask can help lower your risk of inhaling airborne particulates, it can only do so much.
Dr. Nicholas Kenyon, co-director of the University of California, Davis, Asthma Network explains, “During the two years when we were all wearing masks, we saw a lot less patients getting sick with asthma, because the most common cause of sickness that would bring you to the hospital is a respiratory virus. Those numbers went way down.”
However, he states that regular surgical masks don’t make a huge impact when it comes to filtering out environmental hazards.
“What we recommend wearing for Covid and what we recommend wearing for, say, wildfire smoke is a bit different. For wildfire smoke, you do need an N-95 mask, not just a regular paper mask. But, we do know that wearing a mask was a good thing overall in preventing people from getting sick from other viruses.”
Don’t bother with ‘air purifying’ house plants
The other thing that comes up often is houseplants, especially those that claim to be air-purifying houseplants.
Do those actually work? Unfortunately, no.
Reviewed’s chief scientist and biologist Dave Ellerby says, “You'd need to pack your home and office with plants to get any meaningful effect on pollutant levels.”
A 2019 study conducted by Drexel University revealed that the number of plants required to have an impact on your home’s air quality would be a staggering 10 to 1,000 plants per square meter, which, I don’t know about you, but there isn’t enough room in my house for that many plants.
It may sound like the pollutants in your home are dangerous and scary, and if they’re left unchecked, they certainly can pose a danger. But, if your home is monitored over time, and proper ventilation and filtration are employed, you’ll be able to breathe easy knowing you’ve created a healthy environment at home.
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