Why the air inside is polluted, and what you can do about it

From cutting down on cleaning chemicals to opening windows, here’s a look at ways to improve indoor air quality.

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We always hear about the pollution we encounter outdoors — it’s hard to miss emissions coming from factories, power plants and cars — but did you know that the air inside your home is more likely to make you sick? In fact, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, indoor air is actually five times more polluted than the air outside. And since we spend, on average, 90 percent of our time inside, the majority of toxins we’re exposed to actually have nothing to do with our common knowledge about pollution.

Some of the common causes for poor air quality inside the home include household cleaning products, pesticides, insulation that contains asbestos, tobacco, and offgassing from common household items like kitchen cabinets, carpeting, paint and wallpaper. In addition, when appliances such as stoves, space heaters and furnaces are not working properly, they can release hazardous chemicals into a home.

The consequences of being exposed to indoor toxins can be quite serious. The health problems caused by indoor air pollution include headaches, dizziness, fatigue, sore throats and eye irritation. In extreme cases, chemicals found inside our homes can cause serious respiratory problems and asthma attacks.

Quick Tip

Check for Radon

Radon is a common indoor air pollutant and one of the leading causes of cancer in the United States. In order to find out if you have high levels of this radioactive gas in your home, there are several products on the market that allow you to test the air yourself. For a more accurate reading, consider conducting a longterm test that takes more than 90 days to complete.

Breathe easier

It’s not difficult to improve indoor air quality. Here are a few simple suggestions for clearing the air.

INCREASE VENTILATION

If the weather permits, the easiest way to improve the air quality inside your home is by opening windows or a door. A few minutes a day can go a long way toward removing toxins. For the best results, try placing a fan facing outside in one window, and a fan facing inside in another window. This circulates fresh air through your home while blowing stale air outside.

KEEP THE HVAC IN GOOD SHAPE

Make sure that your air and heating unit is running properly, with a quality filter rated to work well for the unit. If the system is dirty, it can add pollutants to indoor air. To help keep this from happening, have your system inspected annually and change filters at recommended intervals.

AVOID PRODUCTS WITH HARSH CHEMICALS

Some common products can be a huge source of pollution. Cutting down on synthetics such as household cleaners, hair spray, nail polish and air fresheners can help reduce exposure to potentially irritating chemicals.

USE LOW-VOC PAINT

Volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, are hazardous chemicals commonly found in paint. VOCs can be released into your home for months after a new paint job. By using green products that have low- or no-VOC content, you can significantly improve the indoor air quality.

Choosing an air filtering system

Commonly, a central heating and cooling system uses a mechanical filtration system — you buy a filter rated to work with a particular unit and slide it into place. For those who don’t use a central system or who have special needs, a residential air cleaner might provide extra protection from irritants. Here’s a look at what’s generally available:

PORTABLE AIR CLEANERS

These units, usually equipped with a fan, are designed to remove hazardous particles and circulate clean air in an area of a home. They may work mechanically by drawing air through filtering material or electronically, with an electrostatic precipitator that traps charged particles. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency cautions that these units may not be effective in removing large particles like pollen, or dust mite and cockroach allergens.

OZONE GENERATORS

These products produce ozone through the use of a UV light or electrical discharge, according to the EPA, and clean the air by removing toxic particles. However, health experts say ozone can cause some of the health problems that you’re trying to avoid. The EPA is frank on the issue, posting this warning on its website: “Ozone is a lung irritant that can cause adverse health effects.”

PCO UNITS

Photocatalytic oxidation air cleaners react to the light of UV lamps and are designed to destroy polluting gas inside the home. The effectiveness of these products, however, is currently under debate.

UVGI CLEANERS

Ultraviolet germicidal irradiation systems are designed to destroy viruses, mold and bacteria by using ultraviolet light. These units are not meant to substitute for other types of filtration. Although experts say that UVGI cleaners are effective in destroying some viruses, they may not eliminate all biological pollutants in a home.

To learn more:

While the EPA does not endorse particular air cleaners, it provides copious information for consumers at www.epa.gov.

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