The air inside our homes and other indoor spaces may be two to five times more polluted than the air outside, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which estimates we spend ninety percent of our time indoors. This makes the quality of the air we breathe as we eat, sleep, and relax at home critical to our health—especially during a pandemic. In fact, a the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notably recommends reducing exposure to coronavirus by improving ventilation and air filtration and circulation.
“There’s a lot of research now on how chemical toxins you take in every day affect your immune system,” says Therese Forton-Barnes, owner of Green Living Gurus, which helps clients rid their homes of air pollutants to improve indoor air quality. “You can’t see it, you can’t smell it—but it is affecting you.”
Here’s advice from experts:
Protect against carbon monoxide.
Among toxins that could be infiltrating your home is carbon monoxide, a colorless, odorless gas produced from burning fossil fuels, like natural gas in furnaces and stoves. Each year, more than four hundred Americans die and twenty thousand others are hospitalized from carbon monoxide poisoning, according to the CDC.
The National Safety Council recommends installing a battery-operated or battery-backup carbon monoxide detector in each sleeping area and on each level of your home, and replacing detectors every five years. For batteries, a good rule is to replace them every time you adjust clocks for daylight savings time. Meanwhile, the CDC recommends servicing gas-burning appliances annually to detect issues.
Test for a common hazard—radon.
Erie County—along with several other local counties—is classified in the top zone for radon by the EPA, indicating a predicted county-wide average of at least four picocuries per liter, the level at which the EPA recommends remediation. Among other health hazards, radon is the number one cause of lung cancer among non-smokers.
Luckily, testing for radon is as easy as picking up a kit for less than twenty bucks at your closest box store. If you’ve never tested your home, or are moving into a new place, commit to doing so this spring.
Monitor your health.
Some air quality issues are more obvious than others; for example, mold and mildew may come with a musty scent, discolored spots, and evident humidity. Others, however, can show up as respiratory issues. According to Forton-Barnes, potential signs of poor air quality include breathing difficulties, throat irritation, skin rashes, allergy-like symptoms, and a persistent headache, dry cough, or runny nose.
If you suspect an issue, check with home service companies that offer indoor air quality testing to detect and remediate mold, asbestos, radon, hazardous waste, lead paint, and other allergens or chemicals.
Change your filters.
This is a simple task, but one that’s easily forgotten in the shuffle of daily life. The best way to get dust and allergens out of your HVAC system isn’t through cleaning your air ducts; in fact, studies by both the EPA and the government-owned Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. did not find measurable benefits to air quality or efficiency from regular duct cleaning. (However, the National Institutes of Health does recommend duct cleaning for known issues, like mold, water damage, debris build-up, rodent infestation, and odors.)
Instead, mark your calendar with regular reminders to swap your furnace filters to improve efficiency and prevent particles from circulating. The specific frequency varies depending on filter quality and unit usage, but if you or your loved ones have asthma, allergies, or other sensitivities, change filters more often.
On more than one occasion, Forton-Barnes has walked into a house she’s assessing and thought, “It feels like a coffin,” because of a lack of fresh air. Like humans, homes need to breathe too, according to the American Lung Association.
“You need outdoor air inside,” says Forton-Barnes, a member of the International Society of Indoor Air Quality and Climate. “I sleep with a window open every night. Every time we cook, a window is open in our kitchen.”
Proper ventilation is critical for removing moisture, gases, and chemicals from the house. Gas stoves and dryers must be properly vented, and extra ventilation—even just in the form of open windows—is needed during projects involving paint or chemicals. In addition, allow new furniture to off-gas outside before bringing it inside to prevent trapping those toxins in your living space.
Green your space.
As evidenced during this Zoom interview, Forton-Barnes’ sunroom and other spaces are full of lush, green plants. Studies have shown indoor plants can help improve concentration, productivity, and mood, as well as lower anxiety.
Studies also link indoor plants to improved air quality—depending, of course, on the number of plants and size of the space—as they remove volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and other toxins from the air. In fact, an oft-cited National Aeronautics and Space Administration study identified the best air-purifying houseplants, including chrysanthemum, peace lily, snake plant, dracaena, and various ivies.
Get an air purifier.
After seeing how it benefited her sister, who has an autoimmune disorder, Forton-Barnes became an advocate for air purifiers, specifically those made by Austin Air Systems, based on Elk Street in Buffalo. Air purifiers remove particles and other pathogens from the air—including viruses, which is why demand has soared during the pandemic.
For Forton-Barnes, one unexpected benefit of keeping the device in her bedroom was a restful night’s sleep. “We don’t snore anymore, so I called the company and they said, ‘It will absolutely [help]—you’re not breathing all these chemicals all day, all night, with dust flying in the air.’”
Take a systematic approach.
“Everything that comes through the door of this house is scrutinized,” Forton-Barnes says. Most conventional cleaning and personal care products are, essentially, mixtures of chemicals, most of which do not need to be disclosed on the labels.
“Begin by taking baby steps,” says Forton-Barnes. Her first step for clients is always the laundry room, specifically detergents and dryer sheets, which typically include VOCs and other chemicals linked to asthma, skin irritations, and reproductive or nervous system issues.
In their place, Forton-Barnes recommends free-and-clear products from such brands as Better Life, Seventh Generation, Molly’s Suds, and Dr. Bronner’s. Wool dryer balls are a healthy alternative to dryer sheets and help reduce waste, too. Also, consult the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Guide to Healthy Cleaning, which rates hundreds of name-brand and private-label products on ingredients, potential health concerns, eco-certifications, and whether or not they’re tested on animals.
Avoid the chemical soup known as “fragrance.”
Unless a product’s fragrance is naturally occurring or includes natural ingredients, like essential oils, that fresh scent was artificially created from any number of chemicals, which manufacturers do not, by law, need to disclose on an ingredient label. Even “unscented” products may include “fragrance” in their ingredients to mask the smell of other ingredients.
The EWG and other watchdogs have reported on synthetic fragrances that included known carcinogens, phthalates, and neurotoxicants, as well as allergens for individuals with sensitivities. As we use these products on our clothing, burn candles, and spray air freshener, perfume, or cologne, we’re constantly breathing them in, increasing our exposure to potential risks. Instead, look for free-and-clear products or those with the Safer Choice fragrance-free label from the EPA.
“Many people have grown up with some of those smells, but ‘fresh breeze’ or ‘winter wonderland’ or ‘ocean breeze’ are actually horrible chemicals,” Forton-Barnes says. “If you can eliminate them, that’s a huge step in the right direction.”