Clean Air Is Literally A Life-And-Death Issue:
Those of you who’ve read my previous posts on the importance of making sure your home’s air isn’t making you sick, by keeping allergens at bay and otherwise keeping your indoor air healthy, know this is a top priority for me. But have you ever wondered why clean air at home is such a big deal? (Besides the “ick” factor, of course?)
Well, the difference between breathing in clean air and breathing in less-than-clean air can literally mean the difference between a long, healthy life, and one that’s cut short too soon – whether by respiratory issues, or other common ailments that scientists have linked to air pollution. Heart disease being chief among them.
Perhaps you’ve noticed an uptick in recent years in news reports about air quality and its impact on our health. It seems as if researchers are gaining momentum in spreading the news that people with asthma (myself included) have long known: Bad air doesn’t just make it hard for asthmatics to breathe; it worsens everyone’s health outcomes. And poor air quality can be just as dangerous to our overall health as those home hazards which are more visible.Bad air doesn't just make it hard for asthmatics to breathe; it worsens EVERYONE'S health outcomes.Click To Tweet
But surely people aren’t really dying, are they?
Um, yeah, they are. At least by the numbers: According to The World Health Organization, 4.3 million people die every year because of subpar indoor air quality. And that’s not just from things you’d expect, like asthma or other respiratory issues. It’s also from things like heart attacks and strokes, both of which are more common in people with higher exposure to air pollution.
With stats like that, it’s clear that having a flow of good quality indoor air is vital to protect our physical and mental well-being. (Why mental? Having spent nights lying awake to listen to Essie’s breathing, so I can give her her rescue inhaler again every time her asthma flared again, believe me, it can take a real toll on one’s mental health.)
This is why it’s so important for parents, especially, to learn about the causes of indoor air pollution, and the resulting risks to our family. From mold and poor ventilation to carbon monoxide and radon, they’re scary to think about. Especially if you have young kids at home, since their immune systems aren’t yet fully formed (putting them at greater risk.)
And if you think this doesn’t affect you or your family, think again. Many Americans have never tested their homes for radon, or allergy-proofed their dwellings. And even if you HAVE done all these things, that’s little help when a massive wildfire is burning anywhere upwind of you. (It doesn’t even have to be in the same state as where you live. Ask people in Oregon and Washington who got to breathe smoke from California wildfires all last summer, my brother and his family among them.)
The good news is this: There are steps you can take, now, to lower the risks your family faces by mitigating many common causes of indoor air pollution. Read on to learn more, so you can better protect your family starting today!
Why Clean Air At Home Matters
Between school, work, home, and even commuting, most of us spend about 90% of our lives indoors on average. No wonder subpar indoor air quality can really do a number on our bodies!
This means that access to clean air indoors is, in some ways, even more critical than previously thought. Add to this the fact that indoor pollutants have more of an effect on our health. The Environmental Protection Agency states that the level of pollutants indoors is two to five times higher than those outside. Moreover, according to the EPA, indoor air pollution can be up to 100 times more damaging than outdoor equivalents.
If we are continuously breathing in air that’s not clean, and allowing our children to breathe this air, what exactly does that mean for our health? Both short-term and long-term consequences are pretty serious:
- In the short term, you and your loved ones can notice side effects including eye irritation, allergic reactions (including in individuals with no allergies to the irritant previously!), headaches, and coughs.
- More serious and deadly long-term ramifications include not only developing conditions including asthma and lung disease, but also cancer and cardiovascular disease.
What Causes Indoor Air Pollution?
There are as many ways to work on clean air at home as there are causes of indoor air pollution. Because there are so many different causes, each source of pollution requires a different small lifestyle change.
This may sound overwhelming, but the reality is that you don’t have to do everything all at once. (Unless, of course, you want to!) Each and every little step is better than doing nothing. So start slowly with the fixes that are easiest for you and your family to accomplish, and build up gradually to the things that seem too overwhelming at first.
Pollution from your HVAC
As I’ve noted before, not servicing your HVAC system regularly can cause a lot more problems in the long run than than the money you’ll save upfront by skipping your annual service contract. Not keeping your system in good working order through regular service, along with not cleaning your vents and registers, can cause a huge build-up of dust and other pollutants in the system. This, in turn, can drastically reduce your indoor air quality. Fortunately, the answer is simple: Get your system serviced each spring and fall, and change the filters as recommended in between.
In these situations, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Trust me, getting that bathroom fan replaced is a lot cheaper than calling in a professional mold remediation company.
Other indoor systems needing a tune-up or replacement
It’s also important to stay on top of other things like that leaky burner on your gas stove, or the heating register that doesn’t seem to work quite right. Left unmaintained for too long, you could end up with dangerous levels of natural gas in your home, or a buildup of carbon monoxide. Staying on top of basic maintenance and service is a lot less costly in the long run than recovering from carbon monoxide poisoning (assuming you and your family DO recover), or a gas explosion.
Toxic chemicals in daily substances
Compared to a century or more ago, our surroundings are loaded with so many chemicals and toxic substances that it’s mind-boggling. Everything from particle-board furniture, many household paints, newer carpeting, and even the home cleaning products and outdoor pesticides you use can give off toxic chemicals. And it doesn’t take much for these chemicals to overload and damage human systems, especially those of the very young and very old.
Not to mention the fact that the old-fashioned fireplaces and wood-burning stoves many in colder climes love can also damage lungs and compromise breathing.
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When it comes to all those common consumer products I just mentioned, the solution is easy: look for and switch to more all-natural or environmentally-friendly alternatives. And yes, gas logs aren’t as ambient as a crackling fire on that open hearth – but they’re a lot friendlier to lungs.
Again, though, keep in mind that you can’t always see the toxins lurking in your home. Even homes from the late ’70s through early ’90s may have toxic substances like asbestos lurking within their building materials. In situations like this, you’ll need to hire the pros to help with removal.
What Practical Steps Can You Take Today?
(Besides the ones I already noted above, of course!)
Fortunately, there are plenty of other small steps you can take, in order to regain some control over the indoor air your family breathes at home. Here are several to get you started:
Open the windows
If you live in an area with decent outdoor air quality (acceptable levels of pollen, ozone, and particulate matter on a given day), they by all means throw open the windows more often! Unless the air outside is worse than the indoor air quality, this one step can do a ton for circulating less-healthy air out of your home and cleaner air in. (To check the outdoor air quality where you live, go to airnow.gov for PM2.5 and ozone readings where you live, updated hourly, and pollen.com for detailed pollen forecasts.)
It’s especially important to do this more often if you live in a colder climate (where you may be less accustomed to opening the windows a lot) and during the winter months. In winter, indoor air humidity is often higher than outdoors; a short burst of fresh air from outside can help remove some of the excess moisture, thereby lowering mold risk.
And again, you’ll want to avoid opening the windows during peak traffic times if you live near a busy highway, or much at all when pollen counts are at their highest (especially if you already have a family member who suffers from seasonal allergies to pollens.)
When you’re cooking, make sure you always use your kitchen fan to vent moisture from the stove outside. This assumes, of course, that you already have an extractor venting system. If not, it’s worth looking into extractor hoods, especially if you already have an upcoming kitchen renovation on the horizon. Extractor hoods, also called venting or ducted hoods, push unclean air outside of the house rather than recirculating it.
Likewise, If your bathroom gets especially damp, consider whether you need to add a fan there, or upgrade the current one. We’re looking into getting both our bathroom fans replaced this summer, because they’ve never done the job that effectively, and the one in the master bath has recently given out altogether. (Bathroom fans will also help offset the effects of any chemical fumes from the cleaning products you may use there.)
And above all else, NEVER block or decorate over ventilation fans in your home. People sometimes do this in a misguided attempt to save money on heating bills, but it’s just not worth it. The purpose of those vents is to allow the air to circulate naturally, even when windows and doors are shut, so they’re especially important in winter. They allow oxygen into your home, regulate the internal temperature, stop condensation in its tracks, and prevent a build-up of household pollutants..
Deal with allergens
Finally, if you suspect that someone in your family may have an allergy to something in your home’s air, it’s worth looking into where the nearest allergist’s office is, whether your insurance covers allergy testing, and how long of a wait til you can get a new-patient appointment. While you wait, talk to your family doctor or pediatrician; keep a symptom diary of possible triggers and reactions (for example, does your teenager always end up miserable after mowing the grass? or does doing a deep-clean level of dusting and vacuuming literally make you sick?).
Your regular doctor may prescribe over-the-counter or prescription-strength allergy medications to manage some of the symptoms. But if the problem is severe, you/your child also has asthma, or the symptoms are hard to control even with regular medications, the doctor will probably refer you to a specialist for testing and a more tailored management plan. This is where allergy-proofing your home may come in.
While some of the steps in allergy-proofing can be drastic, depending on the allergies (e.g., ripping up all your carpet, or getting rid of your pets), there are plenty of smaller changes you can make for starters. Many of these involve how and how often you clean. And even if you’re not yet ready for a full-blown allergy-proofing blitz, one other place to start might be looking into a vacuum with a HEPA filter. Households with small children or other immuno-compromised people can especially benefit from the extra level of clean that comes from a HEPA-filter vacuum, which grabs so many common allergens out of the air as it vacuums, rather than just blowing them back around throughout your home.
RELATED POST: How To Allergy Proof Your Home
The bottom line:
There are lots of steps you can take towards reducing the pollutants in your home, and these are just the beginning. But with every little step you take, you’ll be improving both the short-term and long-term outcomes for your family’s health. And once you’ve got some momentum, knowing you’re making a real difference for your family will help you take on the fixes that, for whatever reason, are harder upfront for your family to tackle.
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