How to improve indoor air quality

Smog and PollutionPollution is no longer just a term for the air outdoors – we’re hearing a lot about ‘indoor air pollution’ these days, our own houses’ version of sooty skies and car fumes. Considering that we spend approximately 90% of our time indoors in Australia*, indoor pollutants have just the same potential to cause damage to our health than the good old outdoor pollution we’ve been aware of for decades. While eliminating all indoor pollutants is just not possible, there are a number of simple solutions that reduce them effectively and improve indoor air quality and our health along with it.

First things first: what causes indoor air pollution? There are a few different types of air pollutants to blame. Examples? Fumes produced by non-stick/coated cookware, building materials, paint, VOCs – that’s Volatile Organic Compounds, cigarette smoke, pet dander, pollen, dust, mould spores, viruses, bacteria, and dust mites to only name a few.

Young woman allergic to pet dander sneezing next to a small dogNone of the above are good for us or our breathing health, especially in homes with young children or elderly people, asthma or allergy sufferers and those with a generally weaker immune system. And funnily enough, better construction standards are working against us in the fight against indoor air pollution: as homes have become better insulated, indoor air pollution has grown more concentrated.

There are currently no regulations imposed in Australia to control indoor air quality outside of the workplace, and building materials are not tested for short or long-term effects on the population – leading to the blanket term ‘Sick Building Syndrome’ (SBS) to describe chronic symptoms ranging from skin, eye and throat irritation to drowsiness and headaches (and in the long term, some say cancer or respiratory disease, as is the case with asbestos – thankfully banned in Australia in 1991**). So how can we keep our indoor air healthy and safe? Glad you asked!

Doormat shaped like a Stop traffic signLet’s hear it for cleaning:

-Wipe your feet before coming home, and take your shoes off indoors – who wants to drag pollutants and allergens all around the house?

-Wash your sheets weekly in hot water and hang out to dry in the sun. Dust mites die en masse when exposed to 60ºC for over an hour, and washing can eradicate up to 90% of mites***.

-Vacuum carpets and rugs weekly, if possible with a vacuum equipped with a true HEPA filter. Don’t forget to vacuum vents in the bathroom and laundry.

-Bite the bullet and spring-clean: don’t ignore whole areas of your house or let dust collect. Dust contains tiny skin flakes we’ve generously shed and that’s a food source to microscopic creatures and organisms that are likely to make us allergic or sick sooner or later.

Le-Creuset Cast Iron Cookware SetGood quality counts:

-Ban heavy-metal non-stick cookware from your kitchen: it only takes a few minutes for the coating on your pots and pans to overheat and release toxic fumes. Invest in cast iron or other good quality cookware instead – and if you like non-stick, make sure the coating is free from heavy metals.

Smoke?

-Smoke outside or in a well-ventilated area: that is, if you insist on smoking. Cigarette smoke and its cocktail of chemicals (over 4,000!) will hang around indoors and raise air pollution levels (as well as damage the health of those around you through second-hand smoke).

Ionmax Ion108 Aroma Diffuser Ionic Humidifier diffusing cool water mistFreshen the air naturally:

-Invest in green leafy plants: they effectively purify the air on top of looking nice.

-Ditch synthetic air fresheners – fragrances are considered a trade secret and their ingredients don’t have to be disclosed. Synthetic fragrances and perfumes (yes, sorry, perfume too) contain hundreds of chemicals that can irritate skin, eyes, lungs etc… To keep your home smelling fresh, diffuse essential oils that are antimicrobial and antiseptic – you will be breathing in tiny molecules full of aromatherapeutic benefits and your lungs will be better for it (as well as the air around your house). Some good candidates are eucalyptus, tea-tree, and the always pleasant and sunny orange. As for skin care and perfume, choose products containing natural fragrances derived from essential oils, or go for natural perfume instead.

-Open the windows! This is a very easy way to diffuse concentrated indoor air pollution – be careful if you suffer from hay fever to keep windows open for only brief periods of time to minimise allergens coming in.

Or with a little help from some appliances:

-Monitor your home’s relative humidity. Some bacteria, viruses and allergens live much longer in a dry environment – while mould, mildew and dust mites love high humidity. Our immune system works best when relative humidity is at around 45%, yet some homes only score 15% on the relative humidity scale. Measure your home’s relative humidity and when the results are in, invest in a humidifier or dehumidifier as needed.

-Consider purchasing an air purifier – first identify your biggest concern regarding your indoor air quality: VOCs and gases? An activated carbon air purifier might be best (even better if the carbon is treated with an antibacterial coating). Allergens? Hepa might be the way to go. Air purifiers come filterless as well if you don’t want to have to spend more on filter replacements.

Little girl trying to brush her dogPamper your pets:

-Brush cats and dogs (and rabbits, and hamsters, or anything furry you shelter) outside the house weekly, and wash them once a fortnight with a gentle shampoo that will condition their coat.

DIY:

-If you want to repaint, choose a no-VOC or low-VOC paint. A little more pricey but well worth the investment.

There’s no reason (or excuse!) for your home to have poor indoor air quality now is there?

Are you concerned about indoor air pollution? What do you do to keep the air indoors fresh and clean?

Sources: *Australian Government Dept of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, **Wikipedia, ***Wikipedia

(Image credits: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6)

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