The air in our homes is often not considered as something that needs to be maintained or corrected in any way, aside from clearing out of the occasional pungent odor or blackened entrée. When taken for granted, the indoor air quality can be worse than even the most polluted urban environments, leading to health conditions known as ‘sick building syndrome.’
Have you noticed that you always feel worse after spending time in a certain office or home? Symptoms of poor air quality include irritation and soreness in the eyes, a burning in the nose and throat, and prolonged headaches and fatigue. Those with allergies will find their conditions are worsened and other respiratory illnesses can be inflamed, including asthma. In most cases, the symptoms will be relieved once you leave the particular building – a clear indicator that something is wrong with the air in that space.
Pollution inside our homes and workspaces mostly originates from the outgassing of particles from various sources, and is exacerbated by insufficient ventilation and filtration. With some mindfulness on prevention and correction of these issues, the occupants of a formerly sick building will greatly benefit from immediate and long-term improvement in health and comfort.
Suppress the Source
The first and most effective step to be taken to improve indoor air quality is to remove the sources of pollutants as much as feasibly possible.
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)
These are a type of chemicals found in manufactured products that easily evaporate or “outgas” into the air – you have most noticeably experienced VOCs in a freshly painted room and while pumping gasoline. Aside from most paints and lacquers, they also emanate from varnishes and waxes, wood flooring and carpets, furniture, building materials and finishes, air fresheners, pesticides and moth repellants, cleaning supplies, dry-cleaned clothing, and numerous other sources. These compounds can outgas for years after their application, even long after the detectable smell is gone.
Dust and Pet Dander
Every surface in the home collects dust, as well as dust mites and pet dander. All can cause respiratory irritation and wreak havoc on asthma sufferers when stirred up into the air. Soft surfaces are havens for dust and dander, especially carpets, rugs, pillows, blankets, and even cute stuffed animals.
Humid environments and damp surfaces without much air exchange is a perfect environment for growing mold. When inhaled, the spores released by these organisms can cause allergy-like symptoms and asthma attacks, and in more severe cases can escalate to severe headaches, nosebleeds, constant fatigue, and worse. Mold can grow wherever there is moisture and humidity, including not only bathrooms but also ventilation ducts, crawlspaces, attics, and hidden behind walls.
Living in a humid environment such as that of the southeastern United States, enough cannot be said about the dangers of mold growth in the home.
If you suspect that you or your family are suffering from mold inhalation symptoms, do not hesitate to call a certified professional to inspect your home.
Unless you have just time traveled from the 1950s, this should not be breaking news. Tobacco smoke causes severe respiratory illnesses and cancer.
Filter and Freshen
The sources of pollutants can never be totally eliminated, so it is important to filter and replenish the air in the home.
Central Air Filtration
The air conditioning and heating system in your home has a system filter that all the circulated air passes through. This filter not only cleans particulates from the air, but also prevents the settling of dust and mold in the ventilation ducts. Not all filters are made the same, and there are varying degrees of quality from useless to overkill – read HERE for an easy guide (some sizes can be difficult to find, email me for help). Filters should be changed regularly, depending on use. There are often set periods such as 30 or 90 days, but it’s best to be subjective – observe the filter each month and if it looks filthy, change it.
Your central system should have a “Fan” setting that allows you to change from “auto” to “on” or something similar. The automatic setting runs the fan only when the system is actively cooling or heating, whereas “on” will run the fan and circulate the air regardless of system mode. Be mindful of how much the system is running – during temperate times of year (like right now in April or later in October), your system may go for a few days without turning on. If that’s the case, then flip the switch to “on” every now and then so that the air in your home can be circulated and filtered.
Portable air filters can service individual rooms to entire floors, and can provide a much-needed boost to the central filtration system of the home or office. These are typically HEPA filter systems and are extremely effective at removing pollutants. Because they typically service one room or area, it is best to locate them where occupants are spending the most time – bedrooms and living/working areas.
Also, when cleaning your floors and carpets, be sure to choose a vacuum system that includes a HEPA filter. Without a very good filter, a vacuum cleaner will stir up fine dust and particulates from carpet back into the air. If you find yourself having a sneezing fit while vacuuming, you have found a red flag.
It is an irony that modern homes are constructed to be sealed for maximum energy efficiency, because in doing so the air exchange is greatly limited – this contributes to indoor air quality problems related to humidity and pollutants. You can see this effect in bathrooms and kitchens where moisture has condensed and stained glossy paint finishes. Be mindful of this predicament and, weather permitting, open some windows every so often. Of course this is sage advice in April, but easier said than done in August – in the hot or cold seasons take a moment to ventilate during the most temperate times of day, even if for only several minutes once or twice a week.
Plan and Prevent
Whether purchasing a new home or improving your current home, steps can be taken to ensure the indoor air quality will be beneficial.
Ventilation and Filtration
Modern HVAC systems are not only efficient on energy, they are also designed with indoor air quality in mind. Controlling humidity in the home is critical to controlling mold growth, and filtration systems prevent the recirculation of dust and dander. Also place indoor plants in the home and office that absorb pollutants.
Paints and Finishes
One of the largest sources of pollutants in the home are the VOCs that persist for extended periods. When choosing paints, flooring and carpets, and furniture, look in to the VOC content of those products. Since awareness has been raised about the long-term effects of VOC inhalation, there are many products with low- or no-VOC content that do not sacrifice on quality.
Keep it Clean
Vacuum and dust regularly, being mindful to not stir up dust but collect it. If you’re in the market for a new vacuum system, make sure it has a HEPA filter. When considering the flooring of a home, minimize the amount of carpeting – fewer soft surfaces decrease the area that contains dust and pollutants to be stirred up later.