5 ways to improve indoor air quality in your home

| by Gary Wollenhaupt
5 ways to improve indoor air quality in your home

Going green in your home will help the environment and help your family breathe easier. After all, the environment inside your home is just as important as the one outside.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the air inside the average home is up to five times more polluted than the air outside. Some of that pollution comes from things like dust, pet dander, mold and bacteria. However, chemicals from products in the home contribute to poor air quality as well.

The main culprits are chemicals called volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, noted Rebecca Morley, executive director of the Healthy House Institute.

The VOCs are chemicals that evaporate at room temperature. Depending on a person’s exposure and sensitivity, VOCs can cause immediate or acute health problems such as headaches, eye, nose and throat irritation and difficulty breathing. If you’ve ever felt light headed after painting a small room, you know the effects of VOCs.

Also, chronic health effects such as heart disease and neurological damage may result from long-term exposure.

VOCs, the most widely known of which is formaldehyde, can be found in a variety of common household items, including building materials, cleaning products, personal-care products and furniture.

“We’re trying to get people to be aware of the things they bring into their own homes,” Morley said.

To improve the air quality in your home, follow these tips:

1. Purge perfumes and scented products

The first thing two of our experts said was, “No more scented products!”

“Get rid of the plug-in air fresheners, and in my opinion get rid of all of the scented air fresheners,” said Charlene W. Bayer, Ph.D., principal research scientist at Georgia Tech University and chief science officer for Hygieia Science. “You’re putting chemicals on top of chemicals and increasing your exposure. Particularly with young children and asthmatics in the home, there’s no reason to do that. If you have an odor, clean it up.”

Morley agreed.

“It’s a chemical soup of perfumes around us, even our deodorants and shampoos are full of perfumes,” she said. “Think long and hard before bringing any chemicals into your home.”

2. Look at the label

When you’re looking for green products, take time to understand what the labels mean. For instance, paint may be labeled “green” if it was produced in a way that minimized environmental pollution but could have negative health effects.

“You may think you can paint bedroom walls and your child won’t have any reaction, but that may not be a realistic expectation,” Morley said.
Green Seal, a non?profit organization that provides sustainability standards and conducts third?party certification, identifies green cleaning and home products.

The GreenGuard Environmental Institute certifies products and materials for low chemical emissions for improved indoor air quality.

The Green Label Plus program from the Carpet and Rug Institute certifies flooring products for low chemical emissions.

“We do not know what all the health effects are from VOCs, but you want to buy products that emit as low a level as possible,” Bayer said.

 3. Add an air filter

Room or whole-house filters can purge the air of many contaminants that elude other types of cleaning. Some contaminants are so small that they may escape through the vacuum cleaner or never land on a surface to be cleaned up.

For example, electronic air cleaners and high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters can capture the smallest particles and biological pollutants, such as bacteria, while germicidal lights kill them. Room size and whole-house air purification systems are available.

For a whole house filter, Jeffrey C. May, principal scientist with May Indoor Air Investigations, recommends a minimum of a MERV 8 filter. According to the Healthy House Institute, the MERV rating indicates how efficiently the filter removes small particles from the air. The higher the number the better, May noted.  By comparison, most home furnace filters have a MERV rating of 4 or less.

Even with a filter, you have to be aware of what pollutants might be in the home. “If you’re smoking in the house, the filter won’t make a difference,” Morley said. “You can’t have a filter in the bedroom and hope that your whole house will have clean air.”

Morley recommends using an air filter or purifier that does not generate ozone, a gas which is also a health irritant.

4. Control humidity

Surprisingly, 30 to 60 percent of the fresh air in a house comes from the basement or crawlspace, according to May. Dampness can lead to mold growth in a basement and throughout the home.

“Most people don’t think they’re living in their basement or crawlspace but they really are,” he said. “For a basement or crawlspace you should be able to eat off of any surface, that’s how clean it should be.”

Morley agrees dampness is a problem. “You don’t want your home to be too humid and have condensation or mold problems, but you don’t want it to be too dry,” she said. “The rule of thumb is around 60 percent humidity is about right depending on the season and climate.”

5. Pass the smell test

Don’t buy products that have a strong chemical odor. If it smells strong in the store, it will be worse when you take it home.

“Put your nose in it; if you can smell it in the store don’t buy it.” Bayer said.

That applies especially to things like furniture, carpet, fabric products. Formaldehyde is often found in furniture and cabinets made from particle board.

Many natural products emit VOCs as well. Bayer cautioned against natural products with a strong lemon aroma, for instance.

“The natural product limonene gives it the lemon smell, but it still is a VOC,” she said. Instead, opt for basic soap and water for most cleaning tasks, rather than scented products.

For more information on indoor air quality, visit our Indoor Air Quality Research Center.


Topics: Going Green, Indoor Air Quality, Ventilation

Gary Wollenhaupt

Gary Wollenhaupt is an experienced writer and editor, with a background as a daily newspaper reporter as well as corporate and agency public relations and marketing. He is constantly looking for affordable green upgrades to make to his home in eastern Kentucky.

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