Air quality is a key environmental indicator for human health. Over the years, many organizations and leaders have championed policies to help improve air quality in our cities and towns, addressing point and non-point sources of pollution. With this emphasis on outdoor air quality, it can be jarring to learn that pollutant levels are often two to five times higher indoors than outdoors.
Comparatively speaking, it’s more difficult to directly influence the air quality in your neighborhood or community than it is to make changes to the air quality within your home. Here are five steps you can take to improve your indoor air quality, boosting your environmental health at home and, in some cases, improving your energy efficiency as well.
One of the best actions you can take to improve your indoor air quality is to regularly clean and change your air filters. Left alone, these filters can gather dust, bacteria, mold and other contaminants, leading to their distribution throughout your home. If you have central HVAC, you likely have a filter directly associated with your unit, but you may also have filters throughout your system, often near major intake (return) or output (supply) vents.
Be sure you know where your filters are, vacuum them periodically and change them every six months. When you purchase an air filter, check to ensure it is high quality. Filters labeled “MERV-13” are a good bet, as they can collect particulate as small as one micron. While you’re at it, check out your vacuum cleaner to see if it’s using a HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filter, which helps reduce the amount of dust and other fine particles exhausted back into the air as you clean.
Whether you plug in, spray or hang a decal, air fresheners can degrade your indoor air quality even as they transport you to fields of lavender or forests filled with spruce. It’s important to know that these products are only required to list the word “fragrance” on their labels. They are not currently required to inform you of which chemicals are making the fragrance possible, and many of the chemicals they use are irritating at best, and toxic at worst. The same can be said for some laundry detergents.
Look for options that specifically state they are phthalate-free, as phthalates are known to disrupt hormones in humans. Consider using fragrance-free detergents and soaps or look for naturally scented products. Steer clear of aerosols whenever possible and think about opening a window to circulate fresh air or strategically placing house plants, which naturally filter the air and remove harmful contaminants.
In a similar vein, if you are planning to paint or otherwise spiff up your home, look for products labeled “low-VOC” as they produce fewer volatile organic compounds than their conventional counterparts. VOCs can linger in the air causing discomfort and potentially damaging major organs and systems within the body. Everything from primer or paint, to carpet or other flooring, to new pieces of furniture can off-gas, leaving behind an unpleasant odor and a health hazard.
Ask the retailer or manufacturer about the tendency of a paint or carpet to off-gas and what sorts of VOCs are involved. When shopping for furniture, look for pieces that are free of foam, which is often chemically treated. If you do purchase a couch or other piece with foam cushions, let it sit outside if possible, even if only for a few hours before bringing it into your home. Organic cotton and other natural fabrics pose less of a risk, as do low-VOC stains on finished wood. Whenever possible, research your intended purchase before you buy it and bring it home.
When it comes to indoor air quality, drier is typically better. Moist air supports dust mites and mold growth and can make it harder to manage allergens. Ideally, the humidity in your home should not rise above 50%. You can reduce high humidity levels with the help of a dehumidifier, just be sure to empty it and clean its filter regularly. Also be sure your clothes dryer is venting outside of your home and patch up plumbing leaks promptly.
Radon is often forgotten in conversations about indoor air quality, but it’s a critically important factor. Radon cannot be seen and it has no smell, but it is the second most common cause of lung cancer in the United States. It’s a radioactive gas caused by the natural breakdown of uranium in soil that seeps into homes through cracks in the foundation. Qualified professionals can easily test for radon and remediate it in your home. More information is available from Fairfax County’s Division of Environmental Health.