Is your home’s air making your family sick? Knowing the consequences of poor indoor air quality is the first step to improving the air your family breathes at home. And improving your indoor air quality at home will help make your whole family healthier in the weeks, months, and years to come.
I speak from firsthand experience. I spent most of high school sick, suffering constant sinus infections that stemmed from undiagnosed allergies. Many of the allergens that were making me miserable were especially prevalent in my bedroom, where I spent up to 12 hours a day! I finally got tested right before heading off to college, and resolved to do better. But by the time I was 30, it was clear that I hadn’t done enough. In addition to allergies, I had also developed allergy-induced asthma!
Given that we all take up to fifty thousand breaths a day – at least 1/3 to 1/2 of them while at home – it’s easy to understand how improving poor indoor air quality at home can really help improve your family’s health.
Want to know more about what causes poor indoor air quality, how to improve it, and the benefits of doing so? Then read on!
The consequences of poor air quality
Short of lobbying for tougher air quality laws (or moving), there’s not a lot you can do to change the outdoor air quality where you live. This is why it’s so important to improve the air quality in the spaces that you can control, such as your own home!
1. Respiratory diseases
Various studies into air pollution have found that breathing in poor quality air can increase individuals’ risk of suffering from respiratory diseases, such as asthma. It’s no wonder that asthma rates and other breathing problems are higher among people living in cities.
2. Heart disease
Moreover, high levels of particle pollution can increase incidents of heart problems. Air pollution (especially fine particulate matter) a known risk factor for developing heart disease. And for those who’ve already been diagnosed with cardiovascular disease, breathing air with high levels of particulate matter for just a few hours can be deadly. Studies have linked doing this to an increased incidence of heart attacks, and doing so regularly to a lower life expectancy.
3. Lung cancer
Before you think, “Oh, we don’t smoke, so we don’t have to worry about this one!”: What I have to say is for all you NON-smokers out there.
Did you know
- that 10% of lung cancers occur in people who have NEVER smoked?
- that the second leading risk factor for lung cancer, after smoking, is exposure to radon?
- that 12% of lung cancer deaths can be linked to radon exposure?
- and that 1 in 15 homes in the U.S. is at risk for unhealthy levels of radon?
You can’t see or smell radon gas. But that doesn’t mean it can’t kill you anyway. My mom’s longtime hairdresser Janice never smoked. But she still got lung cancer and died, over a relatively short span of time, in her early 50s. The area where she lives is at “medium” risk of unhealthy levels of radon, and borders an area at “high” risk. (To see the risk where you live, check this map if you live in the U.S.; if you live in the U.K., you can check this map.)
But how can I improve poor indoor air quality in my home?
1. Test for radon; remediate if necessary
I was really shaken by Janice’s death, because she had cut my hair when I was little. This was around the time Dear Husband and I were shopping for our current home. So once we were ready to make an offer, I insisted we get the radon levels checked before finalizing our offer. (This is actually easy and inexpensive; you can buy a radon-level testing kit at your local hardware store or online.)
If your tests indicate that your home’s radon levels are high (as ours did), you can get a radon-remediation system installed by a qualified professional. Given that doing so could save your life, or that of your child, this investment is more than worthwhile.
2. Cut back on indoor smoke particles
From an indoor air quality perspective, no one in your home should smoke, or spend time outside the home in smoke-heavy environments that they then carry home with them. But fireplaces and wood furnaces are also key sources of particulate matter pollution inside your home.
If a wood furnace is your primary source of heat, read these things you can do to minimize harmful smoke while using a wood furnace. Like a cozy winter fire around the fireplace? These tips will help make the air from that fire less dangerous, especially to those with asthma or other breathing issues.
3. Rethink pets, carpeting, and things that promote dust
Back to my own childhood problems with poor indoor air quality. Don’t get me wrong, my mama was (and still is) a fastidious housekeeper. But my allergy tests showed that I was especially susceptible to cat dander and dust mites (which live in things like mattresses, stuffed animals, pillows, and carpeting.) At that time, our family’s three cats pretty much lived in my carpeted bedroom, along with lots of stuffed animals and throw pillows.
As a result, I had to banish the cats, stuffed animals, and extra pillows. The pillows that remained (plus my mattress and boxspring) went into new allergy-encasing covers. And ever since, I’ve only lived in places with little to no carpeting, especially in the sleeping spaces. Even if it meant I had to tear up all the carpeting and pay for new hardwood floors.
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If you must have a pet anyway, consider (for example) cats that produce fewer allergens. And try to keep them out of sleeping spaces. Read this article for more tips on minimizing common allergy triggers in your home, and thereby improving poor indoor air quality.
4. Keep your air and home scrubbed clean
A cleaner home means cleaner air. Make sure you stay on top of vacuuming, dusting, and dust-mopping. If you have pets, bathe them regularly and keep them groomed to keep dander under control. Also wash and thoroughly dry bedding in hot water weekly, to keep dust mites and other allergens at bay.
You might also consider getting one or more HEPA air purifiers. Air purifiers circulate a space’s air through a series of air filters to remove impurities. This process significantly improves the air quality of whatever space you might place them in. Many can remove up to 99.9% of impurities from the air.
Before you buy, you’ll need to know the square footage of the room(s) you want to put the air purifier in. Just like a whole-house HVAC unit or a window air conditioner, an air purifier needs to be appropriately sized for the space it’s in if you want it to work well.
5. Keep the outside, outside
As noted above, you can’t magically clean the air outside your home. But keeping the particles, pollen, and other impurities in the great outdoors out of your home is key to improving your indoor air quality, and keeping the air inside your home as clean as possible.
One great place to start is by cutting back on what gets tracked inside. Encourage everyone to park their shoes at the door, to limit how much dust and dirt get tracked in from the outdoors. Some families even keep a basket of assorted slippers and slipper socks near the door (next to the tray for visitors’ boots and shoes), so that guests can also help with this effort. By not tracking all that outdoors crud through your house, you’ll have less to vacuum and dust-mop. (The same holds true for regularly bathing indoor-outdoor pets.)
And much as it feels glorious to throw all the windows open for some fresh air, you might want to think twice before doing so. Monitor outdoor air-quality levels and pollen levels, and keep windows shut on days with unhealthy levels of either. But if both levels check out OK, then go ahead and open your windows as wide as you like. (Just don’t forget to close them again!)
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6. Make sure your AC is doing its job well
Air conditioning can also help to circulate air within your property, as does your central heating system. However, their main role is to regulate temperature. This is why it’s crucial to get your HVAC system regularly serviced to make sure they’re working properly (and to regularly change the filters between routine service). If your system isn’t functioning well, it can become dusty and spread dust around your home. It’s critical to fix any problems ASAP.
In addition, it’s important to make sure (both for central air and for window units) that your system is properly sized for the space you’re in. A bigger unit does not mean a colder house; it means a unit that’s not working at peak efficiency. And since AC units cool primarily by removing humidity from the air, an improperly-sized unit can mean air that’s cool and clammy. This is a perfect recipe for mold, another major allergen and culprit in poor indoor air quality.
Besides checking your AC’s efficiency, make sure you have proper ventilation in humid places like bathrooms. And consider purchasing a stand-alone dehumidifier for particularly damp areas, like basements.
7. Get some houseplants
Houseplants do require a little upkeep, but they can improve the air quality in your home. Live plants draw impurities out of the air, including VOCs (volatile organic compounds), by absorbing these gases through their pores. Just keep in mind that too many houseplants can encourage mold growth if you overwater them, and you’ll need to keep the plants’ leaves from getting dusty for this to work.
Before purchasing any houseplant, make sure you know how to care for it, and that it doesn’t pose a threat to kids or pets in your home. If you’re looking for the most bang for your buck, see this list of 10 top plant choices for improving poor indoor air quality.
As you can see, poor indoor air quality is hazardous to your family’s health on many levels. But you now have a checklist of practical, actionable steps you can take to improve your home’s indoor air quality. Have you taken any of these steps in your own home? Are there others I’ve missed? Let us know in the comments!
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