Breathe Easy: 5 Ways To Improve Indoor Air Quality

We tend to think of air pollution as something outside -- smog, ozone, or haze hanging in the air, especially in summer. But the truth is, the air inside homes, offices, and other buildings can be more polluted than the air outside. The air inside your home may be polluted by lead (in house dust), formaldehyde, fire-retardants, radon, even volatile chemicals from fragrances used in conventional cleaners. Some pollutants are tracked into the home. Some arrive via a new mattress or furniture, carpet cleaners, or a coat of paint on the walls.

In that mix, you'll also find microscopic dust mites -- a major allergen -- plus mold and heaps of pet dander, says David Lang, MD, head of Allergy/Immunology at the Cleveland Clinic. "Even if you don't have pets, you've probably got pet dander," he tells WebMD. "It's become what we call a community allergen. Pet owners carry it around on their clothes and shed it throughout the day. You can't get away from it."

 

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Children, people with asthma, and the elderly may be especially sensitive to indoor pollutants, but other effects on health may appear years later, after repeated exposure.

Indoor allergens and irritants have become much more important in recent decades because we're spending more time indoors, Lang says. And because modern homes are airtight, these irritants can't easily escape. "We're all exposed to a greater degree than we were three or four decades ago," he says.

 

5 Simple Steps to Improve Indoor Air Quality

1. Keep your floors fresh.

  • Suck it up. Chemicals and allergens can accumulate in household dust for decades. By using a vacuum with a HEPA filter you can reduce concentrations of lead in your home. You can also get rid of other toxins, like brominated fire-retardant chemicals (PBDEs) as well as allergens like pollen, pet dander, and dust mites.

Using a vacuum cleaner that has strong suction, rotating brushes, and a HEPA filter ensures that dust and dirt won’t get blown back out in the exhaust. In high traffic areas, vacuum the same spot several times. Don't forget walls, carpet edges, and upholstered furniture, where dust accumulates. For best results, vacuum two or more times each week and wash out your filter regularly.

  • Mop it up. Mopping picks up the dust that vacuuming leaves behind. You can skip the soaps and cleaners and just use plain water to capture any lingering dust or allergens. New microfiber mops (and dust cloths) reportedly capture more dust and dirt than traditional fibers and don’t require any cleaning solutions whatsoever.

  • Keep it out. Put a large floor mat at every door.People track in all sorts of chemicals via the dirt on their shoes. A door mat reduces the amount of dirt, pesticides, and other pollutants from getting into your home. If the mat is big enough, even those who don't wipe their shoes will leave most pollutants on the mat -- not the floors in your home.

If you live in a home built before 1978, there's a good chance that lead paint still exists on your walls. But even in a newer home, you may face lead exposure -- from lead dust tracked in from outside. Lead dust can raise the risk of exposure for young children -- a serious problem that can damage the brain, central nervous system, and kidneys. Pesticides are also linked with brain damage in young children. Kids are vulnerable to higher exposures because they tend to get dust on their fingers and then put their fingers in their mouths.

To best protect your family, ask people to remove their shoes when entering your home. Keep house shoes, slippers, and socks near the door.  

2. Keep a healthy level of humidity. Dust mites and mold love moisture. Keeping humidity around 30%-50% helps keep them and other allergens under control. A dehumidifier (and air conditioner during summer months) helps reduce moisture in indoor air and effectively controls allergens, Lang says. An air conditioner also reduces indoor pollen count -- another plus for allergy-sufferers. 

More tips for dehumidifying your home: 

  • Use an exhaust fan or crack open a window when cooking, running the dishwasher, or bathing.
  • Don't overwater houseplants.
  • Vent the clothes dryer to the outside.
  • Fix leaky plumbing to prevent moisture-loving mold.
  • Empty drip pans in your window air conditioner and dehumidifier.

3. Make your home a no-smoking zone. "Probably the single most important aspect of indoor air pollution is secondhand cigarette smoke," says Philip Landrigan, MD, a pediatrician and director of the Children's Environmental Health Center at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City.

Cigarette smoke contains more than 4,000 chemicals. Research shows that secondhand smoke increases a child's risk of developing ear and respiratory infections, asthma, cancer, and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). For the smoker, this addiction causes cancer, breathing problems, heart attacks, and stroke.

If you want to stop smoking, support groups, nicotine-replacement therapy, and other medications can help. Find a method that works for you, get some support (friends, family, fellow quitters, counseling), and think positive. Focus on your reasons for quitting -- not on your cravings.

More Americans than ever before have kicked the habit, according to the CDC. But if you relapse, make sure you don’t smoke inside the house. "If you just can't quit, at least smoke outside," Landrigan says.

4. Test for radon.  Whether you have a new or old home, you could have a radon problem. This colorless, odorless gas significantly raises the risk of lung cancer. Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the U.S. today. If you smoke and your home has high radon levels, your risk of lung cancer is especially high. 

Radon is a radioactive gas. It comes from the natural decay of uranium found in nearly all soils. It typically moves up through the ground and into your home through cracks and holes in the foundation. Drafty homes, airtight homes, homes with or without a basement -- any home can potentially have a radon problem. 

Granite countertops have also been linked to radon. While experts agree that most granite countertops emit some radon, the question is whether they do so at levels that can cause cancer. Testing is easy, inexpensive, and takes only a few minutes. If you discover a radon problem, there are simple ways to reduce levels of the gas that are not too costly. Even high radon levels can be reduced to acceptable levels. The Environmental Protection Agency offers a "Consumer’s Guide to Radon Reduction."

5. Smell good naturally. You may associate that lemony or piney scent with a clean kitchen or clean clothes.But synthetic fragrances in laundry products and air fresheners emit dozens of different chemicals into the air. You won’t find their names on the product labels. Conventional laundry detergents, fabric softeners, dryer sheets, and air fresheners in solid, spray, and oil form may all emit such gasses.

In one study, a plug-in air freshener was found to emit 20 different volatile organic compounds (VOCs), including seven regulated as toxic or hazardous under U.S. federal laws. But these chemicals were not included on the label -- only the word "fragrance" is required to be listed. But the actual composition of the fragrance is considered a "trade secret."

Most fragrances are derived from petroleum products, and generally haven’t been tested to see if they have any significant adverse health effects in humans when they are inhaled. (Tests usually focus on whether a fragrance causes skin irritation.) Some that have been tested raise concern. Phthalates are a group of chemicals often used in fragrances and also used to soften plastics. Studies show that phthalates disrupt hormones in animals.What can you do? 

  • Look for fragrance-free or naturally-scented laundry products.
  • Switch to mild cleaners that don't include artificial fragrances.
  • Stop using aerosol sprays -- deodorants, hair sprays, carpet cleaners, furniture polish, and air fresheners.
  • Let in fresh air. Open windows so toxic chemicals don't build up in your home. What if you or your child has pollen allergies? Then keep rooms ventilated with a filtered air- conditioning system.
  • Use sliced lemons and baking soda to get a clean scent in the kitchen.
  • Bring nature indoors. Any room is prettier with a fern, spider plant, or aloe vera. It’s also healthier. NASA research shows that indoor plants like these act as living air purifiers -- the foliage and roots work in tandem to absorb chemical pollutants released by synthetic materials. If you have kids or pets, make sure the plants aren’t poisonous if ingested.