Last Updated on June 29, 2022 by Rebecca Huff
Air pollution is one environmental health hazard most people are aware of, but indoor air pollution isn't as widely known.
For those with allergies, asthma, migraines, neurological disorders, Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, Lupus, autoimmune diseases, and even pregnancy, indoor air quality is non-negotiable. When I was recently diagnosed with mold illness, I knew I would need to improve the air quality in our home.
Mold can grow in the ventilation system where you don't see it and aren't aware of its existence. You can get test kits to find out if your home has mold. Mold is not the only air quality problem, as there are many other air contaminants that can occur, compromising the health of your family.
You may not realize when you are breathing poor quality air but even what you can't smell could harm your health. There has even been some research looking into a possible link between indoor air quality and leaky gut syndrome.
Because you are here, it's fair to say you are looking to improve your health or at the least, maintain it. Most likely, you pay careful attention to what you eat and drink. However, many of us overlook air quality as a factor for maintaining and improving health. Most of us spend more time inside than outside, unfortunately. Are we breathing clean air in our homes?
How is Your Indoor Air Quality
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), indoor air can be much more polluted than outdoor air. Some studies suggest that indoor air can be 5 to 100 times more polluted than outdoor air. At least half of all illnesses are made worse by poor indoor air quality.
You may not even know how bad your indoor air quality may but it could still represent a genuine threat to your health. Children, seniors, and those who have a compromised immune system are especially vulnerable to indoor air pollutants. Ironically, they are also the ones who tend to spend most of their time indoors.
While double-paned windows are energy-efficient, they also make your home more airtight which means sealing in pollutants that are inside your home. In fact, if you have plug-in air fresheners in your home, please know that you are poisoning your own air.
Mainstream plug-in type “air fresheners” contain the chemical naphthalene. In lab studies, this chemical has been shown to cause tissue damage and cancer in the lungs of rodents; we can only assume that it would do the same damage to humans.
On a personal note, several months ago we looked at a house for sale where the realtor had a “plug-in” air freshener installed in every room. My husband and I couldn't even finish looking through the house due to the resulting throat irritation and pounding in our heads. We are not accustomed to being in a house full of chemical fragrances.
When it comes to physical reactions to indoor air pollution, not everyone has an immediate symptom; often we don't realize that we are affected by poor indoor air quality. The health risks are still there even if we are unaware of them.
Symptoms of Indoor Air Pollutants may include
- itchy eyes
- throat irritation
- headaches and migraines
- allergies and respiratory diseases
- heart disease
- cancer (especially lung cancer)
Air quality inside your home can be contaminated by much more than you may have considered. Air pollutants fall into three categories:
- Biological such as bacteria, mold spores, dander, viruses
- Gasses including odors and fumes from pesticides, paints, cleaning agents, carbon monoxide, etc
- Particles from smoke, dust, heavy metals, etc.
Indoor Air Pollutants
You may be wondering how any of these pollutants would get in your home. Here are just a few contaminants that may not have crossed your mind:
- perfumes and colognes we wear
- formaldehyde on permanent press sheets
- pet dander
- improperly vented gas heaters, appliances, fireplaces, chimneys, furnaces
- exhaust from automobiles (attached garages especially)
- VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) found in paints, aerosol sprays, many cleaners, air fresheners, clothes that are dry cleaned, carpets, and even your printer!
- Phthalates in PVC pipes, food packaging, adhesives, detergent, shower curtains, beauty products, and even toys
- Ironically, many “fragrance-free” detergents have scent masking agents that are just as toxic as fragrances!
- Second-hand smoke from your neighbors, workers, and service people coming in your home who have tobacco smoke on their clothing from a smoke break
- formaldehyde from insulation, furniture, glue, pressed wood products, permanent press clothing, and beauty products such as nail polish
- arsenic from pressure-treated woods (decks, playground equipment)
- Pesticides from lawn and garden chemicals, even if you don't use them, your neighbors, parks, and businesses do
- Heavy metals such as that in paint and from industrial pollution
- Radon from granite, soil, smoke detectors, even well water and is the 2nd leading cause of lung cancer in America. You can do a quick search to see how much radon is in your area or have radon levels in your home tested by a professional.
- Mold from water damage and humidity.
After reading the list above, you may feel overwhelmed or even like the situation is hopeless. I know I did! It's impossible to get your home completely free of these toxic chemicals and we can't live in a bubble. We can't just remove the furniture, computers, printers that are pollutants as we need them to function or work.
Baby steps can help you work towards removing the chemicals you do have control over. Removing air fresheners, fabric softeners, and other cleaners and replacing with non-toxic options and upgrading air filters is a good place to start.
Where young children are concerned
Babies and toddlers spend a lot of time on the floor playing, crawling, and learning to walk. Floors tend to collect contaminants because they are heavier than air. They fall and become concentrated on the floors. Air circulates less as you get closer to the floor so the air where children play can be especially toxic. The health effects of these pollutants on building occupants can vary, but children are typically more susceptible.
Children have immune systems that are still developing. A lot of children breathe through their mouth, so the air is naturally less filtered exposing them to more contaminants. Also, because most children are more active the volume of air they breathe is higher creating a higher level of exposure to these irritants.
IAQ and women's health
Reports say that 75 percent of Americans diagnosed with autoimmune disease are women. Because autoimmune diseases are complicated, some estimate that it can take multiple doctors and up to five years to get a diagnosis.
The number of cases of Hashimoto's Thyroiditis (an autoimmune condition that affects the thyroid) has been on the rise since the 1950's leading to more research on the causes of this hormonal disorder. While more than half of the risk can come from genetics, science has shown that environment can trigger autoimmune disease.
Since we are more susceptible as women, we should take care in the products we use around our home, in our beauty routine, and with other personal care items.
School and Office Environments with Sick Building Syndrome (poor air quality)
In addition to the air in our homes, we need to consider the air quality in the places where we spend the most time. Since the early 70's much research has been conducted on the impact of poor ventilation in office and school buildings across the US with shocking results. A 2005 study showed that improved ventilation had positive impacts on perceived air quality and work performance for the subjects tested.
Mold, and especially black mold, has been found to have serious health risks. Asbestos in older school buildings and their building materials.
Steps to improve indoor air quality
One of the first things I did to clean up my home environment was to start removing our shoes at the door. I've been doing this for over a decade now; it becomes second nature.
Especially those of us with young children should be aware that many pollutants, pesticides, and other chemicals can be carried onto floors by shoes. (not to mention bacteria and viruses from public restrooms, etc.)
Next, I started to take control over indoor air quality as much as possible by removing the source of some of the pollution. Here are a few suggestions:
- Toss the plug-in type air fresheners, scented candles, and sprays that “freshen” your furniture and clothes; they are just adding to the problem.
- Reduce the number of chemicals you add to your indoor air by avoiding aerosols.
- Make the switch to non-toxic cleaning products and personal care products. Use sites like EWG to research the products you use on a daily basis.
- Hang dry-cleaned clothes in your garage for a while before you bring them to your closet, or look for a dry cleaner who use eco-friendly cleaning technology (free of PERC)
- Swap your nonstick cookware (which off-gases during use) to iron, glass or ceramic cookware
- Maintain a clean HVAC (I recently had mine cleaned – make sure to ask that the company use a cleaner that does NOT contain fragrance – I found this out the hard way and suffered for days)
- Upgrade your air filters to ones that use earth mineral technology to capture and destroy harmful compounds and does not release any chemicals or masking agents back into your environment. A typical HVAC filter typically uses carbon to remove bacteria and particles.
- Choose a home with hardwood floors if possible, instead of replacing the carpet, opt for hardwoods with a few area rugs. Look for VOC free if you prefer having carpeted floors.
- Don't store paints and other chemicals in an attached garage if possible (I'm still looking for a solution for this as our neighborhood does not allow detached buildings)
- Control dust mites by keeping floors and surfaces clear of clutter. Use an allergen and asthma-certified vacuum twice weekly.
IAQ and Mold
Concerning mold, even though mold is technically naturally occurring, it’s what’s known as a volatile organic compound (or VOC), which means, it’s still harmful to the human body. Many people, myself included, have mold allergies. Having a mold allergy means we are more sensitive to mold exposure than other people. If you have a mold allergy, your immune system overreacts when you breathe in mold spores.
To help prevent the presence of mold, seal the foundation of your home and make sure it has proper drainage, free from obstruction. Inside your house, try to maintain the humidity at less than 50% to inhibit mold growth.
If you experience unexplained health problems, consider mold testing. In the short-term, cleaning your air can only have a positive impact on your health.
The last thing I did to improve our indoor air quality should have been the first; I started using a high-quality air purifier. Not a wimpy little air purifier; there is a difference. We started using EnviroKlenz Moblie UV Model.
Even with removing and replacing toxic chemicals, etc. there's always some exposure to fragrance, pollutants, and odors. Guests in your home may be using perfume or even lotion with fragrance. Even well-meaning friends who avoid applying perfumes may have washed their clothing with laundry detergent with strong chemicals and fragrances which can make a person with Multiple Chemical Sensitivities feel sick.
Cleaning indoor air with purifiers
Air purifiers use filtration, ionization, ozone, or ultraviolet light to clean the air. These air purifiers clean the air of many contaminants. My goal was to get rid of any fragrance, mold spores, and pet dander.
Mold can grow in dust. We have cats that shed and though I have always worked hard to keep the shedding fur cleaned up by meticulous cleaning methods, it can still accumulate in vent covers, etc.
The unit we purchased uses multiple technologies. First, it uses HEPA filters to capture allergens, dander, dust, particulate, etc. with no bypass, so it performs efficiently. On the collection side of the HEPA filter, it uses ultraviolet to remove airborne particulates and allergens and inhibits the growth of captured bacteria, viruses and mold. The UVC lamps continuously shine on the collected organisms to destroy them.
The cartridges used in this system lasts 4-5 months and removes toxic odors and chemicals through a process called adsorptive neutralization, meaning it gets a solid hold on them via a surface as a thin film on the material.
“Timilon’s proprietary EnviroKlenz-Air formulation contains a blend of high surface area metal oxides. The large surface area to volume ratio of the metal oxides makes them highly chemically reactive, and particularly suitable for chemical reactions involving destructive adsorption. Microbial VOCs which contact the EnviroKlenz-HVAC Filter formulation are strongly adsorbed and removed from the air stream. Unlike the VOCs adsorbed by activated carbon filters, VOCs bound to the EnviroKlenz technology will not be released by off-gassing later.”
When the HEPA filter builds up with particulate an indicator light lets you know it is time to replace the filter. In other words, the system monitors buildup by using a differential pressure switch that measures air resistance through the filter. Most systems use a timer which can be inefficient as you might end up replacing the filter too soon or worse, too late.
Immediate benefits with the UV air purifier
Besides improving air quality to remove pollutants I'm not even aware of there were several immediate benefits. When placed in the kitchen it cleans the air from, shall we say, poorly supervised cooking (smoke from burned food). I also found that when the unit is near my cats' litter boxes, it removes the odor that reminds me it's time to clean behind my cats.
I turn my unit on high speed when we leave home and also at night to clean the air at maximum efficiency. When we are in the room with the unit, I turn it on Whisp-Air speed which is quieter.
It's almost what I would consider a plug and go air purifier on wheels, which makes it easy to move from room to room as needed. I often relocate the unit wherever I need it as it covers 850 square feet.
Additional steps for better indoor air quality
You can also add houseplants to your home to help clean the air. I have found aloe, spider plants, and snake plants all reasonably easy to grow. The little offshoots can be placed in water to encourage root growth, then planted in a pot of soil to grow another plant. I started with one small plant and now I have about a dozen. There are several other plants that can help detox your indoor air.
Do your health a favor, don't replace your plug in air fresheners with scented candles as they contain benzene and toluene, two known carcinogens. Try pure essential oils in a diffuser instead. If you just enjoy candles, consider using beeswax candles instead.
On days when the outside air quality has a good rating (i.e., on low humidity, low pollen days where we live – check on WeatherBug app), open windows to get fresh air and to create a cross draft. Even better if you can do this at night when there is less chance of nitrogen dioxide air pollution from nearby traffic. Generally, the air quality index improves overnight.
Use a dehumidifier or turn on air conditioning to reduce humidity levels in your indoor environment. According to some studies, reducing humidity decreases dust mites and mold growth.
Last, I would recommend using ceiling fans to keep the air circulating, vents opened throughout the house, and when possible leave closet and bedroom doors open for better air circulation. When air is circulating indoor air quality will improve faster.
What you don't know can hurt you
Of course, cleaning up sources of indoor air pollution is something that we can continue to work on and improve as we replace toxic products with better options. Some people may like to go cold turkey, replacing everything at one time, but most will choose to do it one step at a time. If I had it to do over, knowing what I know now, I would have started with the air purifier, followed by the other steps; that way at least what I didn't know about wouldn't be hurting me.
Please share this post to help others make changes towards improving air quality one home at a time.
Mendell, M. J. and Heath, G. A. (2005), Do indoor pollutants and thermal conditions in schools influence student performance? A critical review of the literature. Indoor Air, 15: 27–52. doi:10.1111/j.1600-0668.2004.00320.x