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How Can You Improve Indoor Air Quality

Molly GraceSeptember 09, 2019

Some of the more popular approaches to air purification are kind of like air itself – intangible. While a quick Google search yields plenty of results from “natural living” gurus on how to naturally purify the air in your home, these tips aren’t usually backed up by a ton of science.

And when it comes to the quality of the air you and your family breathe, you don’t want to mess around with something that may not work.

The allure of these methods makes sense; they promise big results with little work on your end. All you have to do is turn on a lamp, light a candle or purchase a peace lily plant and then start reaping the benefits of cleaner air.

If these natural methods work for you, more power to you. But if you’re looking for a more proactive way to improve your indoor air quality, here are some concrete things you can do to take a more hands-on approach.

The ‘Science’ Of Air Purification

As we spend more and more time indoors, it makes sense that people have turned a more critical eye to the air in our homes – especially because conditions like asthma and allergies are so widespread.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the indoor concentrations of some pollutants can be two to five times higher than outdoor concentrations. Since we spend about 90% of our time indoors, it’s natural to want assurance that we aren’t breathing in those pollutants.

However, some methods of air purification will get you more mileage than others. Himalayan salt lamps and beeswax candles are said to release negative ions that can help remove contaminants from the air. However, there’s not really any hard evidence to prove this claim.

How about the claim that plants can purify the air for you? Not so clear-cut.

A famous study done by NASA in 1989 is the source of the oft-cited claim that houseplants can improve your indoor air quality. What people often ignore is that the study was done to look at the ability of plants to remove pollutants in a sealed environment, like a space station.

In fact, in a memo on the study, the EPA noted that a typical house would need 680 plants to match the NASA study’s pollutant removal rate.

Even air purifiers aren’t the holy grail of air cleaning. While an air purifier may help those with allergies or respiratory conditions, they’re mostly unnecessary if you don’t have one of these conditions.

So, how can we figure out the best ways to combat indoor air pollutants? Look to what the experts have to say. The EPA is a good source for this, as is the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA). The American Lung Association also provides information on how to ensure you’re breathing healthy air.

The Effects Of Indoor Air Pollution

If you have allergies or asthma, you probably know the ways in which air pollutants can negatively affect you. But what about a person without any such condition?

Everyone reacts differently to indoor air pollutants depending on their individual sensitivities. Reactions can include allergy-like symptoms such as eyes, nose and throat irritation or headaches, dizziness and fatigue.

Certain long-term indoor air pollutants are associated with respiratory disease, heart disease and cancer. Radon, an invisible gas that’s the second leading cause of lung cancer, is an example of such a pollutant.

The Culprits

What’s hiding in your air? Probably at least a few pollutants, as it’s pretty hard to truly purify the air.

The big ones to watch out for are carbon monoxide, radon and tobacco smoke. These can cause significant health problems. High levels of carbon monoxide can be fatal while lower concentrations can reduce brain function. Long-term exposure to radon can increase your risk of developing lung cancer.

And even in the form of secondhand smoke, exposure to tobacco smoke can cause all sorts of problems in both the short and long term from triggering asthma to increasing your lung cancer risk.

If you have an older home, you may also have to worry about asbestos and lead exposure, both of which can also cause significant long-term health problems.

Certain chemicals in the air can cause adverse health reactions as well. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are gases emitted from many common household products including paints, cleaning supplies, air fresheners and even the perfume you spray on your skin every day.

VOCs include a large group of chemicals, some with more worrisome potential side effects than others. Some, like benzene, are known carcinogens. Cigarette smoke is a major source of benzene exposure, though it can also be found in certain household items such as glue, paint, furniture wax and detergent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Other VOCs may have milder impacts on human health, causing temporary irritation. Some have no known health impact.

Mold, pest droppings, dust and pet dander are additional common indoor pollutants that can cause some adverse health effects.

Clear The Air

The EPA provides guidelines for people who want to improve their home’s air quality. The best way to improve your indoor air quality, it says, is to stop contaminants at the source.

Removing Big Health Risks

Before you tackle less harmful pollutants, make sure you aren’t breathing in any of the more dangerous ones.

If you or someone you live with is a smoker, enforce a “no smoking indoors” rule and ask any guests who smoke to do so outside and away from any doors or windows. In the long term, smokers should look into taking steps to quit smoking permanently. Smokefree.gov has resources that can help out with this.

Ensure your home has carbon monoxide detectors installed and that they’re working. Carbon monoxide detectors should be located on every level in your home. Some of the more high-tech models even come with the ability to connect to Wi-Fi so you can get alerts on your phone if an alarm goes off.

Nest Protect Wired Smoke and Carbon Monoxide Detector

Additionally, make sure all your gas appliances are properly maintained.

When it comes to radon, you’ve got to do a test to find out if your levels are elevated beyond what’s recommended. 4 picocuries per liter (pCi/L) or higher is considered elevated. According to the EPA, the ideal level for inside your home should be 2 pCi/L or lower.

You can purchase both short-term and long-term radon test kits at home improvement stores. These will tell you what your home’s radon levels are.

Short Term Activated Carbon Radon Test Kit

If your levels are elevated, you may need to hire a professional to have a radon reduction system installed. Contact your state’s health and environmental agencies for more information.

Limiting VOC Exposure

Another thing you can do to keep your home’s air clean is reduce the number of VOCs that are floating around in it.

There are two ways you can do this: buy products that are have low or no VOCs and make sure the areas you’re in are well-ventilated when you’re using products that contain VOCs.

Look for cleaning products that don’t contain harsh chemicals or fragrances. Stop using air freshener sprays and plug-ins. Lastly, always read the labels on the products you use and be careful about products containing “fragrances,” a sneaky catch-all term that can include multiple, undisclosed chemicals.

Mrs. Meyer’s Clean Day Kitchen Basics Set

You may also want to look at low-VOC flooring options and be sure to only buy paint with low or no VOCs.

Whenever you use products that emit VOCs, make sure the area is well-ventilated. Open windows, utilize exhaust fans and work outdoors when you can.

Keep It Clean

Limiting the contaminants and allergens in your air is an ongoing effort; one that requires lots of regular cleaning.

Vacuuming regularly is important. Aim for at least once a week but try to do so more often if you have pets and/or allergies. For areas of your home that get a lot of traffic, you may want to run the vacuum as often as every other day.

In fact, a good vacuum will likely be one of your most important weapons in the fight against poor indoor air quality. Get one with a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter. HEPA filters trap the smallest microscopic particles so your vacuum doesn’t blow these contaminants back into the air.

Small Ball Multi Floor Upright Vacuum Cleaner

Don’t just give your floors the vacuum treatment. Use the attachments to pull up dander and dust on your furnishings.

As much as it might pain you, try not to let your pets sleep in bed with you. Wash your sheets once a week and consider showering at night so you don’t bring the dirt and pollen from the day into bed with you.

Keeping your house generally neat and clutter-free can also help because it limits the number of spots where dusts can harbor. Also make sure you’re regularly changing your air filters.

Mold and pests are other common household pollutants. If you suspect you have a problem with either, it’s probably best to talk to a professional about what your options are for mitigating the issue.

Buy An Air Cleaner

Using an air cleaner or air purifier in conjunction with the methods we talked about above can help those who are more sensitive to indoor pollutants. However, it shouldn’t be your only line of defense.

A quality air cleaner can cost between a couple hundred dollars to more than a thousand, and that doesn’t include the costs to operate the device continuously. Be sure to factor in energy and filter costs when considering an air cleaner.

If you do decide to buy an air cleaner, get one that utilizes a HEPA filter to capture ultrafine particles.

Honeywell True HEPA Allergen Remover

Ultimately, you won’t be able to completely “purify” your air. But by cleaning regularly and avoiding some of the bigger airborne threats, you can help ensure the air you’re breathing is as clean as possible.

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    Molly Grace

    Molly Grace is a staff writer focusing on mortgages, personal finance and homeownership. She has a B.A. in journalism from Indiana University. You can follow her on Twitter @themollygrace.