Improve your indoor air quality
Do you need to improve your indoor air quality? What do you smell when you walk through your front door? Do you smell air fresheners, dryer sheets? Who knows what chemicals are in these products and how many are harmful to your health?
Who knows what they do when they accumulate in your body? Or what their synergistic effects might be? [“Synergistic” means that 2 + 2 = 5, that when two or more are added together, their total effects might be worse than the sum of either separately.]
The Environmental Protection Agency added synthetic fragrances to the list of chemicals that can promote asthma. For more information on synthetic fragrances, go to www.fpinva.org.
Step 1. Get rid of synthetic fragrances
This is an easy first step to improve your indoor air quality. Though there are costly laboratory tests that can give you the total levels of volatile compounds in your air, you can improve air quality on your own, without laboratory testing. Simply discard anything with fragrance, including the following:
- Air fresheners, including plug-ins
The alternative is to deal with whatever is being masked by the air fresheners, to bring in fresh air, improve ventilation, or boil some cinnamon sticks on the stove. Essential oils may be fine to use, but some people are sensitive to these oils.
- Laundry products, including dryer sheets
The alternative is to buy fragrance-free products. Use less detergent than called for to make clothes softer. Adding a ½ cup of vinegar to rinse water also makes clothes softer. Use ½ cup of hydrogen peroxide instead of chlorinated bleach. Products with chlorine don’t belong in a healthy home. One study assessed the air quality in dryer vent hoses and found unacceptable levels of pollutants. You don’t need these pollutants under your nose each night in bedding.
- Personal care products
To improve your indoor air quality, remove all products with fragrance, including body washes, soaps, deodorants, aftershave lotions, perfumes, etc. Why walk around in a toxic cloud? Who knows what chemicals are being absorbed into your body from these products? Go to fragrance-free, hypoallergenic products. Buy a deodorant rock at a health food store.
- Cleaning products
To improve your indoor air quality, remove all products with fragrance, including pine scent. Few fragrances are “natural.” Most are chemical concoctions. Seek out scent-free products, or make your own. You can find recipes online, or check Annie B. Bond’s book, Better Basics for the Home. SuperClean is an all-purpose cleaner available at www.N.E.E.D.S.com.
Step 2. Minimize your exposure to plastics, especially around food, water, and in your children’s bedrooms.
- Don’t heat plastic in the microwave oven. Avoid microwave ovens in general for cooking or heating food.
- There are plenty of alternatives to plastic. Use glass containers for food storage. Avoid water in plastic bottles.
Step 3. Minimize your exposure to combustion by-products.
- Natural gas
If you have a gas stove, you will have combustion by-products in your kitchen. Use an exhaust fan to the exterior when cooking. The stove should have an automatic pilot. Upgrade old stoves. Newer electric stoves are preferred.
- If you have a gas fireplace, make sure the exhaust is directed outside, not released into the room. If the exhaust is released into the room, get rid of the gas fireplace – or use it only in power-outage emergencies and then have a nearby door or window open.
- Oil burner – If you have any small oil leaks, apply enzymes (available in the cleaning products aisle of a large health food store) on the oil. If you have an older buried oil tank, upgrade to a new tank, or convert to gas. Check with your health department for regulations about removal or shutting down of oil tanks. Homeowners’ insurance policies typically do not cover oil spills from tank failures. Tank failure can happen indoors, too. There are ways to check for leaks. Check with your health department for advice.
- Carbon monoxide – Make sure you have working carbon monoxide detectors on each floor with a combustion gas appliance, plus where you would hear one at night. If you have an attached garage used for a car, it’s also a good idea to put one in the room next to the attached garage, should you ever dash inside to answer a phone and forget the car is running.
- Vehicle exhaust – If you park your car in an attached garage, you may have exhaust gases infiltrating your home. Weatherproof the door between the garage and the house. Seal up holes as needed.
- Vehicle exhaust from the street – Hopefully you don’t live on a busy street. If you do, at least you could open windows during the night when the traffic is less.
Step 4: Assess if you have sufficient fresh air in your home.
- Fresh air – Many homes are so tight that there is little fresh air coming in, especially in the bedroom at night. Levels of carbon dioxide go up, as levels of oxygen go down. Crack a window. The HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) fan could be put on “on” instead of on “automatic,” to help dissipate the build-up of gases.
To improve oxygen levels, look into a mechanical fresh air source for your home. Talk to your HVAC contractor about a heat or energy recovery ventilator (HRV/ERV) or other alternative. For apartment dwelling, look into a window ventilator unit, www.ultimateair.com or http://www.freshairventilation.net/id83.html.
Step 5: Minimize exposure to pesticides.
- Pesticides – Remove all pesticide sprays. Call your town to learn about proper disposal of toxic wastes. If you need a pest control operator, seek out an organic pest control operator. An Integrated Pest Management company would be second choice, but it is easy to present one’s company as minimizing chemicals and still use them. IPM means different things to different companies. If you use an IPM company, question them carefully about what product they will be using.
- Gardening – Seek out an organic lawn care company, or provide your own organic products to your current company. Practice organic gardening, for everyone’s health at your home. Chemicals can be tracked inside. Children play in grass treated with pesticides. If food is grown, you don’t need to be eating chemicals along with it.
Step 6: Reduce levels of dust and other particulates in your air.
- Cleaning – To improve your indoor air quality, use only a HEPA vacuum cleaner with a sealed chassis. “HEPA” stands for “high efficiency particulate arrestor.” That is, it captures tiny particulates as small as mold spores. Other vacuum cleaners tend to recycle these particulates back to room air. I like the Miele Calima and the Nilfisk GM80 canister vacs. At Costco, I recently saw an inexpensive Shark model for bare floors, with a sealed unit. (A sealed chassis means that dirty air can’t leak out before it gets to the filter.)
- Carpeting – Carpeting is one of the worst investments in a home, from a health standpoint. It traps allergens (dust and dirt, pollen, mold spores, cat and dog dander, dust mites), and is impossible to get completely clean. If you have used a conventional vacuum cleaner, there are likely to be years of accumulated tiny particulates in the carpeting.In addition to being a storehouse for particulates, carpet typically off-gases toxic chemicals, especially when new. You can reduce, but not eliminate, the risk of off-gassing by looking for a green label carpet or a natural fiber carpet/padding. Don’t put carpeting, particularly natural fiber carpeting, in a basement.If you have high pile carpeting, you will likely need a power nozzle for vacuuming. Even though you might have the best HEPA vacuum cleaner, the vent at the power nozzle does not also have a HEPA filter and typically discharges high levels of particulates back into room air. Avoid high pile and shag rugs. For low pile, you could use a turbo nozzle, which is not electrified.
- The filter at the HVAC system (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) – The filter to get is a good-fitting pleated filter, such as a 3M Filtrete, SpaceGuard, or April Air pleated filter, etc. This does the best job. Avoid fiberglass filters, because dust passes through them. Avoid electrostatic and electronic cleaners, because they work fine until they get coated with dust…and who knows how long that might take. Electronic cleaners also add electrostress throughout the house.From a health standpoint, the purpose of a filter is to keep the AC coils clean. Since the AC coils are a site of condensation, if they are dirty, you have food and water for mold to grow. If they are clean, the condensate just runs off them.
- Duct cleaning – For information on duct cleaning, please review the Duct Cleaning brochure available at www.epa.gov/iaq and then search on “duct cleaning.” There are some important facts to know before you arrange for duct cleaning:
- Flexduct may not be able to be adequately cleaned and should be replaced.
- The whole system needs to be cleaned, not just ducts.
- Replace ductwork that has porous lining.
- Avoid chemicals and fogging. Mechanical cleaning is recommended.
- If your system had a superior, pleated filter from day 1, it may not need to be cleaned ever – though have the coils checked from time to time. On the other hand, usually contractors would not protect ducts from construction dust, so construction dust may need to be vacuumed out of ductwork.
- Room air purifier – If you like windows open, don’t run a room air purifier, or you will be purifying the great outdoors. If I had a HEPA vacuum cleaner and a controlled indoor environment (windows closed, fresh air source, pleated media filter in my HVAC system), I might also run a room air purifier to remove more particulates from room air – but probably not, because I prefer quiet to motors running. I wouldn’t run it in the bedroom at night, because that would add to electrostress. If you have to run one in the bedroom at night (maybe a child has asthma), plug it in away from the bed.Again, to improve your indoor air quality, look for a room air purifier marked “HEPA,” which removes 99.97% of all particulates 0.3 microns or larger (size of mold spores). I like the IQ Air, which is effective and quieter. If a sensitive person needs a “safe room,” the IQ Air can be modified to make a safe room. Please email me for details.Know what you are trying to remove from the air. Use a HEPA room air purifier if you are removing particulates. HEPA will do nothing for gases, though. If you want to reduce levels of gases, you’ll need a room air purifier with carbon, such as the Austin Air. Don’t place an Austin Air in a musty-smelling basement, because mold and bacteria can grow in carbon.It’s OK not to use a room air purifier at all. If you HEPA-vacuum and damp-dust regularly, you’ll pick up a lot of the particulates through routine cleaning. Keep your home as shipshape as possible to make it easier to clean. Avoid having a lot of dust collectors around.
Remember, dust collects on horizontal surfaces. If you feel stuffy in bed, your bedspread or blankets may need to be washed. What about a bedspread that needs to be dry-cleaned? Try shaking it out outside. In the olden days, the blankets and quilts were hung on a clothes line and beaten with something like a tennis rack for dust removal.
Step 7: Reduce exposure to biological contaminants.
- Dust mites – Dust mites like elevated relative humidity. A target level for relative humidity at home is 30%, which is high enough to moisten mucous membranes and low enough to discourage the growth of dust mites and mold. In the basement, the target level is 50% or lower. Dust mites like to live in mattresses (so buy a mattress cover against the mites), carpeting (good to avoid), and upholstered furniture. Dust mites are allergenic to many folk. Dust mites like natural fibers, such as organic cotton futons. Make sure there is a good cover on beds. Check out www.allergybuyersclub.com or other source. Personally, I like synthetic dust mite covers, such as 3M used to make – but I have not found another source. If you know of one, please tell me.
- Cockroaches and other insect pests, such as bedbugs – Seek out an organic pest control company or deal with the plague yourself by putting sprinkling Borax in the path of the cockroaches. Also sprinkle diatomaceous earth around.
- Rodents – If you have an area, such as an attic crawlspace, that has a history of mice infestation, be careful about cleaning it. Rodent droppings can contain harmful viruses. Check with your health department for recommendations, or search on-line. Wear a P100 or N95 mask and gloves and goggles. Use a bona fide HEPA vacuum cleaner. Apply Benefect, a least-toxic sanitizer, www.benefect.com. Hire an organic pest company to deal with the issue.Most people know that deer can carry ticks that cause Lyme disease. It is not so well known that mice can, too. See the A-Z list and scroll down to “Ticks” for how to reduce the risk of exposure.
- Pets – Many individuals who have beloved cats and dogs are allergic to them. If in doubt, check with an allergist or naturopathic physician. Exposure to allergens is an added burden on the body. At least use a HEPA vacuum cleaner frequently and keep pets off your bed. Get checked periodically for parasites.
Step 8: Reduce your exposure to formaldehyde
- Formaldehyde is a sensitizing agent, that is, it can make you more sensitive to other chemicals that didn’t bother you before you had an exposure to formaldehyde. New buildings materials and new furniture, drapes, etc., can contain formaldehyde. New carpeting is no longer supposed to contain it.Renovating and redecorating a house can put a person over the edge with formaldehyde reactions. That happened to me about 20 years ago. I was working and living in newly renovated surroundings, and one day I got a migraine. I was fortunate enough to find a physician who diagnosed the underlying issue as mercury toxicity (from silver amalgam fillings, which I had removed). He worked with homeopathic detoxification, put me on an anti-candida diet, and within two years, the migraines left and have never returned.How do you avoid formaldehyde if you are furnishing a home? Since formaldehyde is the strongest when furniture is new, try to buy a floor model. Explore suppliers of healthier furniture, such as found among the advertisers of The Natural Home magazine or on-line. Check out formaldehyde-free furniture at IKEA. Avoid pressed wood, or encapsulate it with a formaldehyde sealing product. Inquire at a “green” home supply store, of which there are more and more. Buy unfinished furniture and apply a least-toxic finish.
Step 9: Reduce your exposure to lead paint.
- Lead paint was outlawed in 1978 but painters were allowed to use up their supplies, so conceivably houses painted in 1979 or 1980 might have lead paint. If lead paint is buried under other layers of paint, it likely is not a health issue, unless someone starts sanding. The problem comes when lead paint is in bad condition, and the flaking dust adds lead to the air. Another issue is when the inside runners of window frames were painted with lead paint. Every time the window goes up or down, lead dust could be released.There is a simple way to test for lead paint. Go to www.leadcheck.com and order a pack of swabs. Follow the instructions. If the yellow solution turns red upon contact, it’s lead. (You can double the areas tested by squeezing a few drops on a Q-Tip and rubbing a surface with that.)Areas to be tested include (but are not limited to) original layers of paint on an older house, base molding, doors, window frames, worn china, gold rims of wine glasses, lead crystal (though I don’t know if the LeadCheck would pick up on that), imported toys, embossed mugs, stained glass, etc. LeadCheck is not for testing lead in dust.Children under 6 should be regularly tested for lead levels. Besides paint, sources could include toys and sandboxes near roads with a lot of traffic. Check out the EPA’s brochure on lead exposure. Go to www.epa.gov/iaq and search on Lead.For testing, a small bulk sample can be forwarded to a lab such as Microbac Lab, 4359 Linglestown Road, Harrisburg, PA 17112, 717-661-9700, asbestos or lead, $15-20. Lead cleanup is similar to mold cleanup. Your HEPA vacuum cleaner should pick up lead particulates.We’ll come back to lead in the section on water.
Step 10: Reduce your exposure to asbestos.
- Old houses likely have asbestos somewhere, but the most obvious place would be pipe insulation. For testing, a small bulk sample can be forwarded to a lab such as Microbac Lab, 4359 Linglestown Road, Harrisburg, PA 17112, 717-661-9700, asbestos or lead, $15-20. Read the EPA brochures on asbestos, www.epa.gov/iaq and search on Asbestos.Asbestos cleanup is similar to mold cleanup. Your HEPA vacuum cleaner should pick up asbestos fibers.
Last words on Indoor Air Quality
Some years back, I was asked to conduct air quality testing in a vacant cottage on the grounds of an estate. The homeowners’ daughter and son-in-law, with their new baby, were coming for a visit, and my clients wanted to make sure the air quality was good.
I ran a VOC scan for volatile organic compounds, a standard air quality test. An indoor sample was done, as well as an outdoor sample for comparison. Results showed indoor test levels just about the same as outdoor levels. Both were good. The lab fees for the tests were in the area of $800.
I thought to myself: “Just wait until the new family arrives, with their cleaning and polishing products and their personal care products and their air fresheners and their car exhaust in the attached garage. No longer will the indoor air quality in the cottage be so pristine.” If the cottage were being redecorated, with new furniture and new carpet and new paint, the levels of VOCs would be even higher.
The most common source of indoor air pollution is what we ourselves bring into our homes. For just about every product, there is a healthier choice. We need to gear our thinking that way and then to go looking for the healthier choices.
How did you do with the above checklist? How would you rate your home? Make the easier changes first. Draw up a plan and work your plan. Write and tell me about improved health from what you do, ok?
Now let’s proceed to the Mold tab.