To-do list for fresh indoor air

Want to breathe easy? We put together a long to-do list that includes ways you can reduce air pollution at home. Did you know? Indoor air is most often worse than outdoors. Reducing outdoor tailpipe and smokestack pollution will help, and so will our work to reduce toxics in consumer products. But in the meantime, here are ways you can clean up the air you breathe nearly every day.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ranks indoor air quality among the top five concerns for public health. Between smoke, dust, vapors and cleaning product residue, indoor air can be 100 times worse than outdoor air—and it is commonly two to five times worse. Because we spend 90% of our time indoors, managing air quality is essential to good health.

How’s my air flow?

Ideally, when you walk into your home, it should smell like… nothing. Lingering aromas—whether they are pleasant or not—are an indication that you may need better air circulation in your home. Condensation inside windows or on hard surfaces also indicates that you may need better airflow in your household. A little fresh air can go a long way to eliminating household hazards. Here’s how to get air moving:

  • ™Throw open a window and turn on a fan for even a few minutes a day. Even in the winter, your house will quickly warm after you’ve let in some fresh, cold air.
  • To control pollen from outdoor air, purchase a window filter. A furnace filter fitted to your open window will also work.
  • ™Use the fans in your bathroom, kitchen and laundry room. These fans are sometimes the only source of air exchange in a household. Because they are located near sources of moisture, it is important to use them when cooking, showering or drying clothes. You can also keep the fans on and the doors to these rooms open to promote air circulation in the household.
  • ™If you have a house-wide heating and cooling system, use the highest efficiency air filter that fits the system. Be sure to change it as often as recommended.
  • ™If your fan does not pass the “tissue test”— drawing a piece of tissue towards it—clean or replace the fan.
  • ™If your home is well insulated, ensure a good system to refresh the air and keep pollutants from building up. Central air heating and cooling systems typically do not bring fresh air into the house. The cost of a “whole-house ventilation system” starts at about $300.

What you can’t smell: radon and carbon monoxide

  • One in five Oregon homes has a radon problem. The radioactive gas can’t be detected by the senses, but exposure is a serious cancer risk. Test for radon; if it is high, there are ways you can reduce exposure.
  • Carbon monoxide is also undetectable by our sense but can be immediately harmful and even deadly. Consider buying a carbon monoxide detector for your home

Air-cleaning tools

There’s no substitute for fresh air flowing in your home—but there are ways to give that fresh air a boost:

  • ™Dust with a damp cloth: Studies have found as many as 66 toxic chemicals in household dust. Dry-dusting simply moves dust around.
  • ™Use micro-fiber cloths for dusting. Microfiber cloths and mops are a great tool for keeping floors and surfaces dust-free. Particles cling to the microscopic hooks and loops, picking up dust without using detergent.
  • ™Don’t buy an ozone generator. Air filters, electronic particle cleaners, and ionizers can help control pollutants, but ozone generators are not safe or effective.
  • ™Purchase houseplants to absorb air pollutants. Some studies suggest that heartleaf philodendron, spider plant, peace lily, snake plant, gerbera daisies, pot mums and bamboo palm may remove some pollutants. Be aware, however, that houseplants can also be a source of mold or of pesticides that can cause their own problems!
  • Baking soda is an odor absorber! Sprinkle some in your trash can, on your carpets when vacuuming, in your diaper pail or other places where odor is a problem
  • Simmer vinegar. To get rid of cooking smells, try heating some vinegar on the stove top. It works wonders to freshen the air.

If family members or regular visitors smoke

Cigarette smoke indoors—or drifting indoors from open windows or vents—can be an immediate irritant and also lead to long-term health challenges. The latest studies show that even “third-hand” smoke—the residue of smoke left on clothing and hair or furnishings—can expose people to the same dangerous pollutants as cigarette smoke. What’s more, smokers themselves cope with exposure to an irritant that may make them more vulnerable to other irritants in the home.

  • ™Designate a smoking spot outdoors far from windows, doors, and vents.
  • ™Encourage smokers to wash hands after smoking, and to wear a smoking jacket that they can remove when coming indoors.
  • ™ It’s best for your whole family if you don’t allow smoking indoors.

 Common products that can pollute the air  

Some household products contain “volatile organic compounds” or VOCs — a class of chemicals that, at high concentrations can cause eye, nose and throat irritation, frequent headaches, nausea, and can also damage the liver, kidney, and central nervous system.

  • Avoid aerosol sprays including cleaning supplies, glue, paint, deodorant, hair spray and air fresheners. Aerosols are often propelled with VOCs. The tiny droplets can also hang in the air to be easily inhaled and can get deep into the lungs.
  • Take leftover paint, varnish and other maintenance and automotive supplies to hazardous waste recycling, or store it separate from living spaces. Even when the cans are closed and you can’t smell it, these products can release VOCs.
  • Avoid scented products. A recent study found that many dryer sheets, air fresheners, cleaning and personal care supplies release VOCs. Even products advertised as “green,” “natural,” or “organic” emitted as many hazardous chemicals as standard ones.
  • Choose low VOC when buying home furnishings. Carpet, flooring, paint, window shades, and upholstery can all contain VOCs. Look for products that are certified as low or no-VOC.

 If you live near a busy street or parking lot

  • Car and truck exhaust contains a cocktail of pollutants that affect health.
  • Post a sign in your window or parking lot encouraging visitors to shut off their engines while waiting.
  • ™Pick times of day to circulate fresh air indoors when the traffic is lightest outdoors.
  • Ensure that vents bringing air into your home are not located near areas where cars and trucks idle. If they are, install filters or re-route the vents.

If you have a fireplace, wood stove or gas heater 

Combustion pollutants—gases or particles that come from burning materials—include moisture, sooty particles, carbon monoxide and other gases that can trigger health effects. Carbon monoxide from furnaces, space heaters, and wood-burning appliances is especially dangerous because you can’t sense it; low levels can cause hea™daches

  • Use hardwoods (elm, maple, oak) or clean-burning manufactured fire logs made from compressed sawdust.
  • ™Do not use green or wet woods, painted or treated scrap wood or colored paper such as comics.
  • ™Get your fireplace checked regularly for leaks or cracks that could bring pollution into your home.

Air quality resources

EPA guide to ventilation for homes

EPA: Should you have your air ducts cleaned?

EPA guide to air cleaners


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