Breathe easier: Simple ways to make your home’s air healthier |

Breathe easier: Simple ways to make your home’s air healthier

Photos courtesy of Getty Images

When most people imagine poor air quality, what often comes to mind is factory smoke, auto emissions or some natural weather occurrence. But according to the Environmental Protection Agency, concentrations of air pollutants can typically be up to five times higher inside your home than out, and sometimes far more.

“In part, it’s because we live in an age where we don’t keep doors and windows open for ventilation,” says Kimberly Button, founder of and a certified consultant for WELL AP, an international program that sets standards for creating buildings that protect and promote good health.

One of the reasons for a lack of natural ventilation is that building codes often require new homes to be more airtight to conserve energy costs, says Button. But the more airtight a home is, the less natural air exchange there is from outside.

“Fortunately, while poor indoor air quality is a major concern, it’s also one of the easiest problems in your home to fix,” Button says.

If your windows can be opened, simply doing so more often will help to increase natural circulation and reduce indoor air contaminants. But even if building code requirements have your house sealed up tighter than a space suit, Button maintains there’s still plenty you can do.

“Start by paying attention to the everyday household products you use. Some of them, such as aerosol air fresheners, hairspray and nail polish contribute to poor air quality.”

The concern with many of these products is gases emitted by what are known as VOC’s, or Volatile Organic Compounds. Many VOC’s are relatively benign. But the emissions from those found in some household products, in particular coatings such as paints, stains, varnishes, and lacquers, can result in respiratory and other health problems.

“Using low-VOC or non-VOC coatings, which are usually indicated on the container, is a good option,” says Button. “Just keep in mind that reducing the VOCs in the paint doesn’t necessarily mean its other harmful chemicals are also reduced. So, when shopping you are best to stick with a company that has a holistic approach to the materials in the paint.” Button likes the 50-year-old eco-friendly brand, ECOS.

Less well recognized but also potentially troublesome are VOC emissions released by certain kinds of new flooring, furniture and cabinetry. “The problem is that a lot of these are not made from real wood but materials such as pressed particle board, containing glues with VOCs that may release gas emissions into your home for years,” says Button. As with pollution-creating paint, cosmetics and other household products, the solution can be to select non-VOC materials to begin with.

According to Button, there are several other ways to improve indoor air quality:

Clean regularly

Airborne household dust contains all sorts of contaminants, including bacteria, allergens, pet dander, dead skin cells and dust mites. Frequent vacuuming, laundering of bed linens, and wet-mopping and dusting are all necessary tools for fighting them. Do not use bagless vacuums, which tend to put particles back into the air. The most effective vacuums are fitted with HEPA filters, which trap extremely small particles.

Eliminate moisture 

Moisture encourages mold, which can be a serious health danger. In addition to natural ventilation, manage moisture by eliminating sources of water leaks and installing exhaust fans, air conditioning, and, if necessary, a dehumidifier. Whole-house models are best, but even a portable room unit can make a difference, especially in bathrooms, laundry rooms and basements. In kitchens, a range hood exhaust fan can also remove odors, heat, airborne grease and smoke.

Install an air purifier  

While the primary purpose of air-conditioners and dehumidifiers is removing moisture from the air, air purifiers are also designed to eliminate irritating particles, and, in some cases, odors. Sometimes built into the home ventilation system, and sometimes stand-alone, they vary in design, depending on the type of filter used. The most basic — and most common — filter traps particles in air being pushed through the purifier. A more powerful version of that is a HEPA filter, which is especially good for trapping the mold, pollen and pet dander that can be a problem for asthmatics. Activated carbon filters are good for removing odors. And when used in tandem with HEPA filters, they are excellent at trapping tobacco and fireplace smoke. UV filters, which are actually germ-killing ultraviolet light, inactivate some but not necessarily all micro-organisms. Ionizers, ozone generators and electrostatic filters should be avoided, as they produce ozone, which can cause respiratory problems.

Clean/replace your air filters

 How often you clean or replace your home air filters will depend on factors such as the filter type and how many pets you have. It could be anywhere from a month or less to a year or more, so check with the manufacturer. One thing for sure, though, is the longer you put off tending to the filter the dirtier your home’s air becomes.

Don’t mess with asbestos (or lead paint) 

These aren’t a problem when renovating newer homes, as consumer use of lead paint was banned in the U.S. in 1978, and asbestos in the early 1980s. But both are still around in older structures, and airborne particles stirred up when working with either can have dire long-term consequences. Lead paint chips and dust are especially harmful to children. Asbestos and lead testing and removal should be left to professionals.

Monitor carbon monoxide (CO)

Carbon monoxide is a potentially deadly gas that can be emitted by any ill-functioning gas-burning home appliance. Monitor for it with detectors not unlike those used for smoke alarms. Place them in the major areas of your home, especially the bedrooms. If an alarm goes off, get out into fresh air, and let the pros take over.

The solutions to some of these air quality problems are, admittedly, not as simple as opening a window. And doing the research to make sure you get them right can be a chore. “But if you want to create a home with healthier air to breathe, you have to do it, and you’ll be happy you did,” says Button.

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