The EPA estimates that indoor air quality can be 3-5 times worse than outdoor air quality. And since most Americans spend most of their time indoors, that can seriously affect our health — in terms of asthma, respiratory illnesses, allergies, eye irritation, and other sensitivities. Poor indoor air quality can be due to many different factors. Things like radon and carbon monoxide are the worst culprits and are slow, odorless killers; I want to address some of the less well- known problems and what to do about them:
Cleaning chemicals. Household cleaners contain many harsh chemicals. According to Women's Voices for the Earth, a national organization that works to eliminate toxic chemicals that impact women's health, "The overuse of disinfectant chemicals has been linked to a range of health impacts, from eye, skin, and respiratory irritation to hormone disruption, immune system impacts, and potential reduced fertility." Instead, you can find household cleaners that are much less harsh (I like Seventh Generation), or make your own cleaner with water, borax, vinegar, and essential oils. There are many home recipes on the web.
Cabinetry, furniture, and carpets. Many household furnishings contain urea formaldehyde, which off gas and can lead to respiratory illnesses. Look for cabinetry that is labeled "NAUF" — no added urea formaldehyde. Other furnishings can off-gas as well (you know that new furniture smell? It's not good for you!), so try to make sure furniture, carpets, and carpet pads are non-toxic. For carpeting, look for the Carpet and Rug Institute's (CRI) Green Label Plus rating.
Paint, sealants, adhesives, and coatings. Many of these products contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that are irritants and contribute to smog. Look for low- and no-VOC paints and sealants. The Green Seal label can be helpful in this category.
HVAC system. Your HVAC system can have a big affect on your indoor air quality. Hopefully, you already have a fresh air intake that brings in outdoor air, instead of just recirculating the indoor air (it's building code in most places). Next, pay attention to the air filters — they should have a MERV rating of at least 8 (11 is much better; an integrated HEPA filter is even better). Most importantly, though, the filters need to be changed on a regular basis. Every house is different, but they should be checked monthly and probably changed quarterly. If you don't know where your air filters are, find someone to help you!
Indoor plants. Indoor plants are not part of the problem — they are part of the solution! A lot of people don't know this, but indoor plants can go a long way toward filtering and improving indoor air. Some of the best plants for this purpose include English ivy, the spider plant, bamboo or reed palm. And you get the added benefit of beauty indoor, year-round.
Melissa provides sustainability consulting services for businesses in the Twin Cities metropolitan area. Melissa is also the founder of Green Intention LLC, where she writes and blogs about her experience in getting her own home LEED Gold certified--and then trying to live more sustainably in the home. She chairs her congregation’s Task Force for Sustainability, has her MBA, Master's in Public Policy, and is a LEED AP for Homes.