Let's play Truth or Dare, shall we? Yeah, baby. Are you psyched? Are you scared? I'll go first. Truth, I say! (You can tell what kind of kid I was—in other words, not the kind to streak across the neighbor's lawn.) Have I ever dry cleaned an item of clothing and/or cleaned with conventional cleaners? Gulp. Well, one time I... I mean, it was just a... I didn't think it was. Silence. Can I skip this round?
Your turn. Dare, you say? (Whatever. It doesn't make you inherently cooler.) I dare you to get a vacuum with a HEPA filter and stop using air fresheners! Wait, what? You already do that because you know it seriously improves your indoor air quality? I want a do-over.
The Environmental Protection Agency states that the air quality within homes can be more polluted than the outdoor air even in the largest and most industrialized cities. But there are things you can do to seriously improve your indoor air quality and make your home a healthier place.
Find out how... if you dare.
Know the Pollutants
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, there are 3 categories of indoor pollutants, all of which have the potential to cause serious health problems with enough exposure:
1. Combustion Pollutants: gases or particles that come from burning materials, including space heaters, woodstoves, gas stoves, water heaters, dryers, and fireplaces that are either improperly vented or not vented at all. Types and amounts of pollutants produced will vary depending on how well the appliance was installed, maintained, and vented, as well as what kind of fuel it uses. A few common combustion pollutants include carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide, both of which are colorless, odorless gases.
2. Volatile Organic Compounds ("VOCs"): a variety of organic chemicals that are released as gases from certain solids or liquids. They're widely found in household products, including paints and varnishes, cleaning and disinfecting supplies, building materials and furnishings (such as composite wood products), pesticides, craft materials like glues, adhesives, and permanent markers, air fresheners and other synthetic fragrances, dry-cleaned clothing and textiles, carpets, sealing caulks and solvents, vinyl, personal care products and cosmetics. A few common VOCs are: Acetone, Benzene, Ethylene glycol, Formaldehyde, Methylene chloride, and Perchloroethylene. For more help, learn how to read labels and avoid toxic cleaning products.
3. Asthma and Allergy Triggers: common household triggers include mold, dust mites, pollen, secondhand smoke, and pet dander. At any given time a home may have mold growing on a shower curtain, dust mites in soft textiles like pillows, blankets or stuffed animals, and cat and dog hair on the floor and upholstery.
Maxwell vacuuming the filter from his air purifier.
Take Steps To Reduce Your Exposure
Once you've identified the culprits polluting your indoor air, reduce your exposure with a few simple habits:
- Open the windows as much as possible, even just for a few minutes.
- Clean or change all the filters in your house regularly, particularly those for your heater or furnace, air conditioner, air purifier, and vacuum. Follow the manufacturer's instructions and stay up to date.
- Adjust your humidity levels accordingly with a moisture or humidity gauge, available at most hardware stores. Ideal in-home humidity levels should hover around 45%. Anything under 30% is too dry, over 50% is too high and can contribute to mold growth. To increase humidity, use a vaporizer or humidifier. To decrease humidity, open the windows (if it's not humid outside), turn on a fan or air conditioner, or use a dehumidifier.
- Stay away from synthetic air fresheners and petroleum-based wax candles. Opt instead for homemade air fresheners, simmer pots, and all-natural soy or beeswax candles which won't emit any harmful chemicals.
- Use a HEPA air purifier. Make sure to get an air purifier that does not produce ozone, and one that does eliminate VOCs that off-gas from paint, furniture, and cleaning chemicals. Check out this guide on how to shop for an air purifier that best suits your needs.
- Get some green plants, particularly one or more of the plants on this list from NASA. Just one of these plants for every 50 feet in your home could help reduce VOCs and improve air quality.
- Groom your pets regularly.
- Paint with low or no VOC paint. Always choose non-toxic adhesive, finishes, and varnishes where possible. (A reputable manufacturer should be upfront about the ingredients.) Be informed about the different materials that go into a piece of furniture, and what is likely to offgas.
Unplggd managing editor Gregory tests out the Electrolux Ergorapido 2-in-1 Sweeper, which he says is "the best hard floor vacuum for pet owners."
- Use eco-friendly, non-toxic cleaners and supplies or make your own cleaners.
- Invest in a very good vacuum with strong suction, rotating brushes, and a HEPA filter, which traps smaller particles and allergens that regular vacuums miss.
- Minimize carpets or choose low-pile rugs. Vacuum at least once a week, including walls, carpet edges, and upholstered furniture. Wash or change your vacuum filter regularly.
- Buy a reusable microfiber dust mop, which are good reaching into the nooks and crannies that the vacuum can't reach. Wipe down tops of doors, window frames and sills weekly with a damp cloth. Wash curtains often.
- Use good quality dust-mite-proof pillow, mattress, and box spring covers in the bedroom, organic if possible. Avoid carpet in the bedroom completely. Wash sheets and blankets once a week. Keep clothing off the floor and shoes out of the room.
- Green clean the mold in your shower and regrout if necessary.
For other essential reading on indoor air quality, check out these resources from the Environmental Protection Agency:
- Indoor Air Quality Home Page
- Care For Your Air: A Guide to Indoor Air Quality
- Guide to Air Cleaners in Your Home [PDF]
- Healthy Indoor Environment Protocols for Home Energy Upgrades [PDF]
- Indoor AirPLUS Label for New Homes
(Images: 1. Morguefile; 2. Maxwell Gillingham-Ryan; 3. Gregory Han;)