Cultivating Healthy Indoor Air
Did you know that the air inside our homes can be more toxic than the air outside our homes? The quality of air can actually be measured and Indoor Air Quality is referred to generally as IAQ for short. While it’s helpful and important to know what’s happening in the air outside your home, sometimes there may not be a whole lot that you can do about it. As for your inside air? You’ve got some control over that. At Made Safe, we believe in taking steps toward understanding and reducing our exposure to harmful chemicals. This post unpacks air pollution and how to improve your indoor air quality for better health and well-being.
What is air pollution?
Air pollution contains various chemical groups suspended in the air like sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, volatile organic compounds, chlorofluorocarbon, ozone, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and more. Exposure to air pollutants like these can cause health issues like asthma, respiratory issues, obesity, cancer, and heart disease. The World Health Organization estimates that around seven million people die prematurely from air pollution each year.
Where does air pollution come from and how is it regulated?
The Environmental Protection Agency currently has national restrictions on six pollutants: carbon monoxide, lead, nitrogen dioxide, ozone, sulfur dioxide and particulate matter, which are teensy tiny pieces of matter hanging in the air. The EPA also lists 187 Hazardous Pollutants that the agency aims to regulate by working with industry. However, often the EPA’s regulations are not sufficient to keep industry in check, and the by-product is community exposure to air pollutants.
Particulate matter is measured in micrometers—2.5 micrometers and 10 micrometers. To get a sense of how small this is, imagine a particle 6 to 25 times smaller than a human hair. These particles can be too small for our body’s natural filters, like our noses, to trap, which is how these contaminants enter our bodies. Exposure to particulate matter can increase the risk of heart disease and respiratory illness. In outdoor air, particulate matter most often comes from cars and heavy duty vehicles like diesel trucks, industry smoke stacks, wildfires, slash and burning agriculture, and power plants.
Contrary to popular thought, indoor air can be just as bad, if not worse, than outdoor air. The EPA states that indoor air is a pressing national concern – especially given the fact that people today tend to spend a majority of time indoors – up to 90 percent – in the workplace, at home, or at school.
Mark Hyman, MD describes the home as a “Ziploc bag containing airborne pollutants that can’t escape.” Harmful indoor pollutants become trapped in the home, especially during times of year when we rarely open the windows – the coldest months of winter and the hottest months of summer when air conditioners are running all day long.
In our homes, sources of air pollution come from off-gassing materials like furniture, polyurethane mattresses, flame retardant chemicals, flooring, wallpaper, paint, and air fresheners. It also comes from cleaning products, and from personal care products like hair spray and nail polish. Wood-burning stoves, cigarettes, vacuum cleaners, cooking, the dryer, and a vehicle in a nearby garage can also be sources of indoor air pollution. Often, the quality of indoor air in public spaces, like school and work, is completely unregulated.
By using Upstream to create a Report, you can learn about what sources of large-scale pollutants may be in your area. However, eliminating many of those sources may not be within your control. But that’s no reason to give up. It turns out there is a lot you can do to reduce your exposure to outdoor and indoor air pollution.
What steps can I take to reduce my exposure to outdoor air pollution?
- Create an Upstream Report to learn about air pollution in your area. Check the air pollution section of your read-out to find out what kind of risks are in your area.
- Use a welcome mat to wipe your shoes clean, and then remove your shoes immediately upon entering your home. You can bring in unwanted pollutants like pesticides, heavy metals, and bacteria on your shoes, and then disperse them on your carpet and furniture, but using a door mat and removing your shoes has the potential to substantially reduce tracked-in contaminants.
- Purchase an air filter with a certified HEPA filter. Some air filters actually produce ozone, an air pollutant. Look for air filters that don’t produce ozone and that can filter out particulate matter as small as 2.5 PM. Mark Hyman, MD, a science advisor to MADE SAFE and Director of Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Functional Medicine, recommends AIR Doctor Pro.
- When thinking about moving or buy a home, consider the location. Air quality next to heavily trafficked roads is substantially worse than other areas, especially within 300 meters of the roadway. If you already live next to a busy road, purchase a quality air filter and make sure to maintain it.
- Consider exercising indoors at a gym when air quality is unhealthy in your area. During exercise, your cardio output increases, and your lungs pump more oxygen into your body. If that oxygen is laden with air pollutants, you are increasing your exposure to air pollutants at potentially dangerous levels. If you can’t exercise indoors, seek areas outside your town where air quality is better. If this is not possible, exercise at off-hours when there is less traffic, avoid busy roads, and exercise in green spaces with many trees. Some studies suggest that the benefits of exercise outweigh the risks from outdoor air pollution. Decide what is right for you based on the air pollution levels in your area, your exercise habits, and what is right for your body.
- When temperatures allow, keep your windows closed and run your air filter. If it is too hot outside, do not keep your windows closed; temperatures can reach dangerous levels inside without air conditioning. Instead, find refuge with family and friends in air-conditioned buildings.
- Walk, bike, carpool, and bus to work and around town to help reduce air pollution. If you must drive, avoid idling your car for too long and combine your errands into one trip.
What can I do to reduce indoor air pollution in my own home?
- Check daily air quality forecasts using websites like the EPA’s Air Now, which rates the air using an easy color-coded system. On good air quality days, open your windows for at least ten minutes so that built up indoor air pollution can escape. We especially recommend airing out rooms in the evening, prior to sleeping.
- Use safe building materials that don’t off-gas harmful VOCs when remodeling or building. Check for VOCs when purchasing paint, flooring, carpet, carpet padding adhesives, furniture, wallpaper adhesives, furniture stains, and window treatments.
- Beware of vinyl. Vinyl most often makes appearances in our homes in luxury vinyl flooring, blinds, and windows, as well as shower curtains. Vinyl (aka PVC or recycled plastic #7) off-gases phthalates, chemical compounds that interfere with proper hormonal signaling in the body.
- Leave certain jobs to the professionals: carpet installation, refinishing and staining wood floors, and applying spray-foam insulation. If you want to do small hobby jobs, like staining furniture, be sure to do so outdoors or in a very well-ventilated area.
- Use safe cleaning products. Conventional cleaning products can contain carcinogens, endocrine disruptors, allergens, and more. Choose MADE SAFE certified or make your own cleaning products. It’s as simple as vinegar, water, and antibacterial essential oils like tea tree where necessary.
- Use a vacuum with a HEPA filter to suck up settled particles to avoid recirculating them into the air, and vacuum often. Old, inefficient vacuums can just kick up pollutant particles that have settled on the floor.
- Avoid fragrance. This can be a source of indoor air pollution. Numerous common household fragranced products can contaminate air: cleaning products, air fresheners, scented candles, and other fragranced products like perfume and scented personal care products, which can contain numerous harmful VOCs, allergens, and endocrine-disrupting phthalates.
- Avoid nail polish and nail polish remover. At the very least, use them in well-ventilated areas.
- Properly vent your appliances to avoid exposure to particulate matter. If you can’t vent to the outdoors, install a recirculating appliance vent that sucks up air, purifies it, and releases it back into the air of your home. If this is not possible, open your kitchen window while you are cooking.
- Surround yourself with greenery. Go for air filtering plants like the spider plant, golden pothos, the snake plant, and the peace lily can improve indoor air quality as these plants literally filter the air naturally.
- Avoid dry cleaning. If you must use dry cleaning, look for a green dry cleaner. However, the jury is out on if green dry cleaning chemicals are safer, so always allow your dry cleaning items to air out, preferably outside or in your garage, before bringing into your home. This allows harmful chemicals to be released outdoors, instead of in your indoor environment.
- Look for flame retardant free and safe furniture, mattresses, and bedding.