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Indoor Air Quality – Essential Do's And Don'ts For Healthier Living

Drawing on years of professional expertise in interior design, Ms. Menendez presently excels as the founder and president of Senom Design.

 
Executive Contributor Monserrat Menendez

Understanding and controlling common pollutants indoors can help reduce your risk of indoor health concerns. Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) refers to the air quality within and around buildings and structures, especially as it relates to the health and comfort of building occupants. Health effects from indoor air pollutants may be experienced soon after exposure or, possibly, years later.


Woman breathing fresh air thru her window

What is the impact of our daily life with indoor air quality?


Certain immediate effects are like those from colds or other viral diseases, so it is often difficult to determine if the symptoms are a result of exposure to indoor air pollution. For this reason, it is important to pay attention to the time and place symptoms occur. If the symptoms fade or go away when a person is away from the area, for example, an effort should be made to identify indoor air sources that may be possible causes. Some effects may be made worse by an inadequate supply of outdoor air coming indoors or from the heating, cooling, or humidity conditions prevalent indoors.


Poor indoor air quality can have health consequences that range from irritation of the eyes, nose and throat to headaches and dizziness to asthma attacks. It's also linked to respiratory and heart disease, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.


Primary causes of indoor air problems


Indoor pollution sources that release gases or particles into the air are the primary cause of indoor air quality problems. Inadequate ventilation can increase indoor pollutant levels by not bringing in enough outdoor air to dilute emissions from indoor sources and by not carrying indoor air pollutants out of the area. High temperature and humidity levels can also increase concentrations of some pollutants.


There are many sources of indoor air pollution. These can include:


  • Fuel-burning combustion appliances.

  • Tobacco products

  • Building materials and furnishings as diverse as:

    • Deteriorated asbestos-containing insulation

    • Newly installed flooring, upholstery, or carpet

    • Cabinetry or furniture made of certain pressed wood products

  • Products for household cleaning and maintenance, personal care, or hobbies

  • Central heating and cooling systems and humidification devices

  • Excess moisture

  • Outdoor sources such as:

  • Radon

  • Pesticides

  • Outdoor air pollution.

 

And finally, with COVID-19 and other viruses circulating, the spread of airborne germs is a serious issue indoors.


How can we prevent or improve indoor air quality?


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its ventilation guidance this May, urging building owners and operators to adopt practices that reduce the spread of viral particles. Though these recommendations are perhaps most relevant to schools, hospitals, and group residential or care facilities, homeowners could learn from their advice too.


Maximize fresh air: fresh air from outside is better than no fresh air from outside. This means that opening your windows is often the simplest way to disperse anything nefarious that may be accumulating inside. If you have it, running your central air can be a good way to bring in

outside air.


The CDC recommends using a fan to improve indoor air quality. For instance, you might place one near an open window to help exhaust indoor air to the outdoors.


However, there are sometimes when the air outside is not a good idea to bring into your home. Just take the terrible air billowing off the wildfires in Canada last summer.


Always check your local air quality index before cracking your windows, to be safe.


Controlling the source of the pollutants: keeping sources of contaminants out of the indoor environment if you can, including pests, mold, and pollen. The rationale is that if you eliminate the source, you eliminate the problem. It can be as simple as leaving your dry cleaning outside long enough to air the solvents out, eliminating scented candles and other "air-manipulating devices" that push aromas into your home, those scents are volatile organic compounds.


Flooring such as a carpet can harbor dust mites in a way that hardwood floors don't. It only makes sense to remove carpeting if you have allergies or asthma.


Hard toxics in home cleaning supplies: Harsh cleaning supplies can introduce their own risks. Always read the labels and select safer products when you can. The EPA has a Safer Choice designation that is a helpful guide when you do your shopping list, be mindful of “Greenwashed” Cleaning products. Just because the label shows a logo that implies that is a recycled or “green” option means that is true. Companies use this as a marketing strategy for sales only.


Person cleaning the house

Smart use of home appliances: John Macomber, a Harvard Business School lecturer and author of "Healthy Buildings: How Indoor Spaces Drive Performance and Productivity," warns about the potential dangers of gas stoves and appliances that can leak methane and carbon dioxide, leading to particulates and compounds in indoor spaces. To mitigate these risks, Macomber advises ensuring perfect exhaust for what's being burned or installing a working carbon monoxide detector if gas lines cannot be removed. Additionally, he recommends double-checking that exhaust fans are venting to the outside for optimal safety.


Regular appliance servicing is vital for maintaining optimal performance, extending lifespan, and ensuring safety by preventing leaks and malfunctions. It also reduces energy consumption and associated costs.


Purify the air: Another way to enhance indoor air quality is through filtration. Consider using an indoor air purifier to remove airborne particles such as smoke, dust, pollen, mold spores, and germs. The CDC recommends using purifiers with high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters to minimize the spread of viral particles, as they are effective at capturing various pollutants.


AC Filters should be changed regularly or even swapping the original one for a better version, Filters come with MERV ratings, which stands for the minimum efficiency reporting values. A decent level is MERV 13, says Ibrahim. (HEPA filters are superior with a rating of at least MERV 17.)

 

Air quality illustration

Apartments and commercial buildings with air upgrades

 

The CDC's updated ventilation guidelines stress the importance of exchanging indoor air at least five times per hour, particularly beneficial for schools, healthcare facilities, and group residential or care facilities. While there are no national mandates to follow these guidelines, various cities and communities are adopting their own regulations. For example, New York has introduced a "stretch energy code" also known as NYSERDA to enhance clean energy efficiency in commercial and residential construction projects.


 

Monserrat Menendez, Interior Designer

Drawing on years of professional expertise in interior design, Ms. Menendez presently excels as the founder and president of Senom Design. Through Senom, she aims to make projects not only beautiful, but sustainable, healthy, and approachable. Similarly, she specializes in turnkey rentals and property staging, custom product design, pre-construction, and more working with Iconic Modern Home in the Hamptons, New York City and Connecticut.

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