Winter and Indoor Air Pollution: What You Can Do

Air Pollution.  The term usually conjures the image of factory chimneys belching out toxic black smoke.  But most people don’t realize the biggest threat lurks inside their homes.  According to the EPA, indoor air levels of many pollutants may be 2 to 5 times and occasionally up to 100 times higher than outdoor levels.   Most people spend as much as 90% of their time indoors, which underscores the importance of indoor air quality as a factor in our overall health.[i]

Indoor air pollution becomes even more critical at this time of year since we don’t get frequent exchanges of outside air in the winter.  In fact, in the northern half of the country, our homes become closed environments in which airborne contaminants tend to accumulate.

So what are some of the common sources of indoor air pollution?

  • Dust, Mold, and Pet Dander.  Individuals who are allergic to these contaminants will tend to suffer exacerbated symptoms indoors in the winter when these allergens build up in stagnant air.  They aren’t the only ones affected by these irritants.  For example, there is also some evidence that concentrated exposure to particular species of mold spores can lower immunity in otherwise healthy children and adults.
  • Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs).  Organic chemicals come from many of the products we use on a daily basis, including cleaning, disinfecting, cosmetic, degreasing, and hobby products as well as paints, varnishes, and waxes. 
  • Wood Smoke.  Wood smoke is listed as one of the worst triggers for asthma on the EPA web site. 
  • Carbon Monoxide.  Leaks in the home heating system and lack of ventilation while cooking can increase carbon monoxide exposure.
  • Radon.  The EPA has declared that radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the U.S.  The more time spent in the basement level of your home the more likely it is that you are to be affected by this carcinogen.
  • Asbestos.  A well-known cause of lung disease, asbestos is usually only a threat if it is part of damaged flooring, wall or ceiling tiles or torn pipe covering. It can become airborne if it is exposed to moving air in a friable state.

Thankfully there’s a lot you can do on your own to improve indoor air quality in your home.

Remove Shoes and Boots at the Door.  The dirt and moisture we track in on our shoes and boots brings a lot of debris into the indoor air mix.  This simple habit can reduce airborne contaminants dramatically.

Vacuum More Frequently.  Frequent vacuuming with a HEPA vacuum cleaner will help remove the dirt and dust as well as finer particulates.

Run HEPA Air Cleaners.  This is especially important at night in the bedroom.  If you don’t already have one, consult Consumer Reports for the best rated air cleaners.  Bussey Environmental recommends Austin Healthmate air cleaners.

Minimize Carbon Monoxide with Good Maintenance.  Keep gas appliances properly adjusted and install and use an exhaust fan that vents to the outside.

Use Environmentally-Friendly Cleaning Products.  The chemicals in many conventional cleaning products can create noxious fumes that pollute our indoor air significantly.

Bring in More Plants.  Plants are natural air cleaners that produce oxygen for us.  Please see our earlier blog entry for more details.

Halt Home Improvement Activities.  Postpone home improvement until you’re able to keep your windows open again.  So many home improvement projects introduce not only loads of dust and dirt but also an extra dose of VOCs into the indoor mix — remodeling, painting, refinishing, installing new carpet, purchasing new furniture – so it’s best to wait until you can bring in a regular exchange of outdoor air to flush out the contaminants.

Have Your Air Ducts Cleaned.  Dust, mold spores, pet dander, and other particulates tend to build up in air ducts over time and can contribute to the toxic load in the circulating indoor air.  If you haven’t had your air ducts cleaned in two years or more, you would probably benefit from a thoroughly cleaning of your air ducts.  The National Air Duct Cleaners Association (NADCA) recommends air duct cleaners that follow stringent industry standards.

Make Sure Your Chimney Works Properly.  Cracks in the chimney, problems with the flue opening, and a buildup of creosote can all contribute to more smoke coming into the house.  If you suspect a problem, you may want to stop using your fireplace until you’ve had a chimney cleaner come in to take care of any problems.[ii]

Get Professional Help for Serious Contaminants.  If you think you have a mold, asbestos or radon problem, contact an industrial hygienist or inspector to give you the best information about your individual situation.  It may be a simple do-it-yourself problem or may require an inspection, testing, and remediation.  Consumer Tip:  It’s important to understand that inspectors and remediation firms need to be separate entities to avoid conflict of interest.  Beware of firms that offer to do both testing and remediation.  Some firms will tell you the problem is worse than it really is so they can charge you more for the cleanup and/or renovation work.

Bussey Environmental Inc. is an environmental consulting firm located in Evanston, Illinois.  Bussey Environmental has been serving the North Shore and Chicago Metro areas since 1998. Bussey Environmental Inc., 1604 Chicago Avenue, Suite 11, Evanston, IL 60201.  Ph:  847.492.1465   Fax:  847.492.1466