Air pollution brings to mind smokestacks and clogged freeways. But the truth is, the indoor air quality most of us are exposed to—in our homes and other spaces—is often much worse than the quality of outdoor air. In fact, the same air pollutants that are monitored by environmental laws outdoors are found in levels two, five, sometimes 100 times higher in the average American home! This is bad news, especially when you consider most of us spend 90 percent of our time indoors, and even more during the colder fall and winter months.
Newer, more energy-efficient homes literally seal us inside this toxic environment. Furthermore, pollutants from fireplaces and stoves, cleaning supplies and building materials, tap water, and radon become particularly concentrated during the winter, when our indoor spaces are tightly sealed against the cold. These and other airborne pollutants ramp up inflammation and increase the risk of multiple health problems.
That’s why improving indoor air quality makes a real difference. For example, three years after public smoke-free laws were adopted in Florida, hospitalizations for heart attacks and stroke fell by 18 percent. Although it is impossible to escape indoor air pollution altogether, you can improve the air quality in your home. Begin by eliminating as many contaminants as possible.
Banish Smoking and Reduce Exposure to VOCs
First and foremost, banish smoking. Secondhand smoke is responsible for thousands of lung cancer deaths and tens of thousands of heart disease deaths each year in nonsmoking adults. It also contains strong irritants that worsen symptoms of asthma and allergies and increase the risk of ear and respiratory tract infections in children.
Next, reduce your exposure to volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Hang dry-cleaned items outdoors or in the garage for two hours before bringing them inside. Store paint, solvents, and pesticides in the garage. Minimize your use of household cleaning agents and disinfectants or, better yet, look for “green” products, which are safe and nontoxic. You can also make your own cleaning products using ingredients such as baking soda, Alka-Seltzer, distilled white vinegar, or hydrogen peroxide.
Baking soda can be used for scrubbing counters, deodorizing the refrigerator, and cleaning drains. Alka-Seltzer can be used to clean toilets. White vinegar diluted with water is effective for most kitchen and bathroom surfaces. And hydrogen peroxide makes a good disinfectant. These cleansers may take a little longer to work and require more elbow grease, but the trade-off is worth it.
Finally, avoid air fresheners, which mask odors while releasing dangerous chemicals.
Maintain Your Heating System
If your furnace isn’t working properly, it can emit dangerous fumes. Air-duct cleaning of heating (and air conditioning) systems has also been reported to decrease levels of airborne mold in homes. And it may reduce the levels of dust mites and animal dander as well. Finally, you might want to consider changing your furnace filters on a monthly basis during the winter to help improve indoor air quality.
Consider an Air Purifier
These steps will dramatically improve the air you breathe, but they won’t solve the problem altogether. There is, however, a practical and very reliable way of cleaning up the air in your home: a quality air purifier. This is something you should consider particularly if you live in a tight, energy-efficient house in an area with weather extremes or, more important, if you or a family member (especially a child or a senior) suffers with asthma, allergies, any respiratory illness such as COPD, or cardiovascular disease.
A HEPA Filter Can Improve Indoor Air
Along with an air purifier, you might want to consider getting a HEPA filter to help improve your indoor air quality. These filters remove particulate matter—the tiny particles of smoke, dust, soot, pollen, and other pollutants that are abundant in indoor air. A HEPA filter is especially useful if you have respiratory or cardiovascular problems. In one study, these filters removed nearly 60 percent of air particulates, lowered C-reactive protein (CRP) levels by 32 percent, and improved endothelial function.
Let Plants Clean the Air for You
Another effective way to clean up your indoor air is with plants. Plants work as natural air purifiers by drawing in airborne chemicals and other harmful compounds through their leaves and depositing them in the soil where they are broken down and utilized as plant food by micro-organisms. This process effectively removes toxins such as nitrogen dioxide, formaldehyde, and benzene, to name a few.
Experts recommend using one to three plants for every 100 square feet of living space. Virtually all indoor plants clean the air of known contaminants, however, the following are best known for their air-cleaning capabilities:
- Aloe vera
- English Ivy
- Chinese evergreen
- Spider plant
- Golden pothos
- Snake plant
- Weeping fig
- Bamboo palm
- Peace lilies
- Gerbera daisies
Keep in mind that the soil in potted plants can collect mold and mildew over time, so keep an eye on them if you are susceptible to these allergens.