Improve Your Home's Air Quality

You know that air pollution is bad for the planet. But what's happening to the air inside your home?

There are lots of things you can do to improve your indoor air quality -- and health -- and most are as simple as opening a window. From getting rid of mold to eliminating dust, here's how to keep your home clean and your family healthy.

Your home should be your haven. But for many people, including allergy sufferers and young children, the average house can be a lot less welcoming. New studies show that the air you breathe inside your home can be more polluted than outdoors. And now that spring -- and pollen -- are here, the situation is at its seasonal worst.

So, just what's in your air? Anything that releases gases or particles -- from the dust bunnies under your bed, to the scented candle in your bathroom, to your kitchen stove -- can be a culprit. "Dust and mold can aggravate asthma and allergies," explains Jeffrey Siegel, Ph.D., an indoor air quality scientist at the University of Texas at Austin.

Keep reading for ways to improve your indoor air quality. 

Molds require moisture and oxygen to flourish, so they crop up easily in bathroom corners, dank basements, or under sinks.


A mold infestation can trigger:

  • Asthma
  • Allergies
  • In more concentrated doses, dizziness and flu-like symptoms

Tackle smaller removal jobs yourself: Scrub the mold off of hard surfaces with detergent and hot water, then address the source of the water damage. Throw out infested porous materials like carpets or ceiling tiles. If you're dealing with mold growth that covers an area larger than ten square feet or has spread inside your central air system, the environmental Protection agency recommends hiring a mold remediation company or contractor.

Check the humidity level: Thirty to 50 percent is optimal; any higher and mold, bacteria and dust mites flourish. Measure with a digital thermometer or hygrometer. Check your attic and basement, where standing water or humidity over 50 percent can contribute to mold throughout your house. Run a dehumidifier to fix the problem.

Find and fix leaks: "If your basement or attic get wet, or your notice an occasional drip during a heavy rainstorm, that's usually a sign of a more extensive moisture problem," says Alex Wilson, founder of Building Green. Call a plumber, foundation specialist, or roofer to repair leaks.

Use exhaust fans: The best models vent outdoors and include a HEPA filter to eliminate mold-causing moisture buildup.

Although we tend to think good smells are a sign of a clean home, in fact, many of the fragrances we love irritate the eyes, noses, and throats of those with allergies or chemical sensitivities.


"That goes for cleaning products, air fresheners, potpourri, and perfumes," notes Clifford Bassett, M.D., an allergist and professor at NYU's School of Medicine.

And think twice before you strike that match: "It doesn't matter whether you're talking about cigarette smoke, candles, or incense -- they all generate tons of harmful particles," says Dr. Jeffrey Siegel, an indoor air quality scientist at the University of Texas at Austin. But there is an upside, aside from warmth, if you have a wood-burning fireplace: the fire's heat pushes air out your chimney, taking harmful particles with it and actually increasing your home's circulation.

Send smoke outside: Your stove should have a fan strong enough to vent smoke outside.

Grill outdoors: "I cook outdoors as much as the weather allows because it's one way to minimize how much pollution my stove creates indoors," notes Dr. Siegel.

Go fragrance free: Unscented products off-gas less than their scented counterparts. This is especially important if you just can't live without candles; soy-based are a better bet than paraffin.

Greener cleaning products: Baking soda and white vinegar will cover most of your household cleaning needs without polluting your air. "When you do need to use stronger stuff, use the smallest dose possible in a well-ventilated area," suggests Dr. Siegel. "Then store those products in an outdoor shed or other storage area away from your living spaces."

Carpets, cabinets, furniture, vinyl shower curtains -- almost everything you bring into your home off-gasses a steady stream of chemicals, some of which are toxic.


"Formaldehyde is our biggest concern, because it's a known carcinogen and can off-gas for years," says Building Green's Alex Wilson. If you have older cabinets, you're probably past the peak danger, but if you're thinking about remodeling a kitchen, look for cabinets with lower formaldehyde content. "Most of the companies that are doing this are advertising that fact up front," says Wilson. "If you don't see any mention of it, assume they're using standard high-formaldehyde particle board." 

Paint is another key concern when you're remodeling, because standard formulations can include a host of dangerous chemicals known as Volatile organic Compounds (VoCs).

"I worry most when expectant moms get that nesting instinct and decide to paint the nursery," says Dr. Jeffrey Siegel, an indoor air quality scientist at the University of Texas at Austin. "Resist that urge if you can, because VoCs and other paint chemicals are bad for your developing baby and continue to off-gas for months afterwards." Nowadays, you can easily find no-VoC paint lines from major manufacturers such as Behr and Benjamin Moore.

Skip the chemicals: Ditch the moth crystals and toilet bowl deodorizers when possible; they can contain para-dichlorobenzene (p-dCB), a known carcinogen, says Dr. Siegel. 

Opt for low- or no-formaldehyde: "don't throw out everything in your house that might contain formaldehyde, but it's a good idea to ask if there's a safer alternative whenever you're buying new furnishings, carpets, or cabinetry for your home," advises Siegel.

Let it breathe: Whether you've just painted a room or purchased a new sofa, open up the windows and run a fan for a day or two, especially if there's a strong chemical smell right off the bat. "You won't vent out all the toxins, but this can reduce your exposure," says Siegel. Wash bed linens and towels before using.

If you're waking up with a stuffy nose and itchy eyes, or trouble breathing, odds are good that the dust situation in your house isn't under control -- and your bedroom is ground zero.


Dust will also gather on blinds, carpets, and around collectibles filling shelves and nooks, so regular dusting is important, though not the whole solution.

"Cleaning is great from a hygiene perspective, but every time you dust or vacuum, you're actually releasing huge clouds of particles into the air in your home," says Dr. Jeffrey Siegel, an indoor air quality scientist at the University of Texas at Austin. Many of these particles are invisible, while the visible ones float down and reform the very layer of dust you were trying to remove in the first place.

Dust carefully: Have your least-allergic family member do the dusting. Allergy-sufferers should wear a paper face mask if they're planning to do any cleaning, says Clifford Bassett, M.D., an allergist and professor at NYU's School of Medicine. Wait 30 minutes before entering a just-cleaned room so airborne pollutants have a chance to escape or settle.

Fight mites: Protect your bedding from dust mites by encasing your mattress and pillows in protective covers and washing all linens weekly in hot water. Kill dust mites in stuffed animals and other bulky items by putting them in the freezer for three to five hours per week.

Remove your shoes: "We track in all kinds of dirt, pollen, and pollutants when we wear our shoes indoors," says Dr. Siegel. "All things being equal, shoeless households almost always have better air quality." the exception to that rule: Households with an indoor/outdoor pet. "Your dog is bringing all that same stuff in on his paws and coat, so taking off shoes becomes moot," Dr. Siegel explains. "It's better to maintain a more rigorous cleaning schedule." keep a track-off mat at the front door.

Consider air filters: If you're one of the 70 percent of American households with central air, try forced-air filters with a Minimum efficiency Reporting value (MeRV) of 8 or higher. No central air? A freestanding HePa filter in your bedroom or other main living spaces can do the same job.


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