We often make the mistake of thinking that the air inside our home is the cleanest, but that’s far from the truth. Many things can alter the quality of our indoor air, such as cooking, smoking and even cleaning.
It’s crucial to take the right steps towards improving your indoor air quality to avoid serious health effects.
Poor indoor air can lead to a number of health risks, such as mold and dust mites. Luckily, by knowing how to clean the air in your home, you can better your life and your family’s health.
Negative Effects of Indoor Air Pollution
Indoor air quality (IAQ) is the air within a home, building or structure.
The EPA has shown that indoor air quality can be two to five times more polluted than outdoor air (1).
Many things can alter the IAQ of a home, such as:
- Furnishings such as upholstery, cabinetry or certain wood products.
- Asbestos-containing insulation.
- Household cleaning products.
- Beauty and personal care products.
- Excessive moisture.
- Heating and cooling systems.
- Combustion appliances.
Not Created Equal
Maintenance also plays a significant role. For example, an improperly adjusted gas stove will emit more carbon monoxide.
Health Effects of Indoor Air Pollution
Poor indoor air can lead to immediate or long-term effects, depending on how serious it is. The immediate effects of poor air could be:
- Eye, nose and throat irritation.
- Fatigue (2).
The good thing about immediate effects is that they usually go away as quickly as they come. They’re often treatable and will be eliminated once the pollutant is gone.
Additionally, not all people will experience the immediate effects of air pollution. Many things play a role, such as the individual’s age and preexisting conditions.
Long-term effects, on the other hand, are more serious and more difficult to treat. Some of the long-term effects could be:
- Heart disease.
- Respiratory disease.
- Cancer (3).
It’s uncertain what concentration and exposure will cause harmful health effects. However, it’s crucial to better your indoor air to avoid any health issues, whether small or great.
Main Indoor Pollutants
Pollutants are found in many areas and aspects of our home life. However, it’s important to know what they are and how to avoid health issues.
Here are some of the most common troublemakers within a home:
Mold and Mildew
Mold and mildew are types of fungi commonly found where there’s excess moisture. Whether or not the mold is dangerous depends on which kind it is. For instance, black mold can be toxic if in contact.
Mold spores will usually fly around in the air — spores are microscopic and can’t be seen. These can survive extreme environments that mold itself can’t. If inhaled, mold spores can cause allergies and even asthma.
Volatile Organic Compounds
Volatile organic compounds or VOCs are commonly found in different household cleaners, disinfectants and aerosol sprays. VOC concentrations can be up to 10 times higher indoors compared to outdoors, mainly due to poor ventilation.
Exposure to VOCs can cause short-term effects and long-term effects depending on the concentration and exposure duration. You may experience any of the following:
- Eye, nose and throat irritation.
- Loss of coordination.
- Cancer (4).
Carbon monoxide (CO) is a colorless and odorless gas resulting from incomplete oxidation of carbon. Improperly vented gas stoves or other gas appliances, such as water heaters, will increase carbon monoxide.
High levels of carbon monoxide can be fatal to humans. This is because it deprives the brain and other organs of oxygen. It can lead to nausea, unconsciousness and eventually death (5).
Secondhand smoke is what affects non-smokers who live with a smoker. People who are exposed will often have the same effects as an active smoker. The only way to eliminate secondhand smoking is by eliminating indoor smoking.
Some of the more severe side effects of secondhand smoking are lung cancer, heart diseases and heart attacks. You might also experience the following:
- Increased phlegm.
- Shortness of breath.
- Wheezing (6).
Carbon dioxide (CO2) is an odorless and colorless gas emitted mainly by humans. It’s actually our metabolic process as we breathe out.
As you can imagine, carbon dioxide levels are significantly higher indoors compared to outdoors. This is especially so if there are many people in a given space. High levels of carbon dioxide can cause:
- Loss of consciousness (7).
You might be familiar with the ozone layer — a gas that protects us from the strong rays of the sun. However, it can also be produced at ground level, which is dangerous to our health. Ozone in a home is usually sourced from electric devices, such as air ionizers.
It can also be a by-product of other pollutants, such as nitrogen oxides and VOCs. When these are exposed to sunlight or stagnant air they produce ozone. Ozone can cause the following:
- Breathing difficulties.
- Shortness of breath or painful breathing.
- Coughing and sore throat.
- Aggravated asthma.
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (8).
Dust and Dust Mites
Dust is one of the most common pollutants inside a home and it’s hard to avoid having a bit of dust. Dust particles are tiny and can stay afloat in the air, making you more likely to inhale them.
Dust mites feed on dead human skin cells. They can be found in bedding, carpets, upholstery, curtains, mattresses and other places in a home. When inhaled, dust and dust mites can cause allergic reactions as well as trigger asthma (9).
Dander is another very common household pollutant; it’s skin shed commonly from your pets. Dander can cause allergic reactions, depending on how sensitive you are. Some people might not be affected, while others will experience serious reactions (10).
Asbestos is a building material used in houses and structures up until 1975. If you live in a house built before this time, chances are there’s a significant amount of asbestos used. You might also find this in insulation, shingles, within floor tiles and more.
Asbestos is typically effective when new, but over time, it begins to disintegrate. This releases microscopic fibers into the air. One of the more serious health effects of asbestos exposure is lung cancer (11).
Fine Particulate Matter
If you live close to a construction site or next to a busy road, fine particulate matter could be a problem indoors. Fine particulate matter, also known as soot, is produced by diesel exhausts. The tiny particles are less than 2.5 microns in size and can cause the following:
- Aggravated asthma.
- Irregular heartbeat.
- Decreased lung function.
- Increased respiratory problems (12).
How to Clean Air in the Home
Keeping the air inside our homes clean is crucial for our health. If you have young children or elderly people living in the house, it becomes more important.
As we concluded above, poor indoor air can cause a variety of health effects. But how can you clean the air inside your home? We found and tested some easy ways to improve your indoor air.
Tip #1: Control Humidity
High humidity levels indoors will lead to excess moisture and dampness, both of which can affect your health. Dampness can aggravate allergies and asthma, and lead to the growth of mold, mildew and dust mites.
It can be challenging to get rid of mold, and it can cause various health effects, such as allergies and asthma.
One of the best things you can do to control humidity at home is to invest in a dehumidifier. These devices will effectively draw moisture out of the air, eliminating pollutants such as dust mites and mold.
Tip #2: Ventilate the Kitchen
As you’re spending time in the kitchen cooking your favorite meals, it’s crucial to keep the area well-ventilated. If you have a gas stove, it will release nitrogen dioxide, which can be harmful at certain levels.
The EPA has stated that in some cases, nitrogen dioxide levels are greater indoors compared to outdoors. It can lead to a number of health hazards such as lung diseases and acute or chronic bronchitis (13).
To reduce the risk of nitrogen dioxide, it’s crucial to keep gas stoves properly adjusted and vented. Installing an air vent in the kitchen will help to keep nitrogen dioxide to a minimum.
Tip #3: Remove Household Dust
Household dust can be tricky to deal with. It might be easy to remove what’s lingering in the corners, but what about airborne particles? Airborne dust can be inhaled and cause a number of issues to your health, such as allergies or coughing.
Having a good vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter can help to eliminate much of the dust on the floor and surfaces.
To remove dust from the air, we recommend using an air purifier. This device will draw air in and pull it through a series of filters before releasing clean air.
Tip #4: Eliminate Dust Mites
Dust mites are microscopic pests found in soft furnishings like upholstery, couches, mattresses and carpets.
Despite their microscopic size, dust mites aren’t able to stay afloat in the air for long. However, as you’re cleaning or sitting down on a surface, they can be temporarily released into the air for you to inhale.
Inhaling dust mites can cause an allergic reaction if you’re sensitive. In more severe cases, they can cause asthma attacks and chronic inflammation.
Making your home uninhabitable for dust mites is the most effective way to eliminate them. Keep temperatures and humidity levels low to slow down their reproduction. It’s also essential to vacuum surfaces to remove dust mite waste as this will continue to cause trouble.
Tip #5: Stop Indoor Smoking
Indoor smoking will lead to secondhand smoking for everyone else in the house. Keeping the room ventilated isn’t a reliable option, so it’s best to eliminate indoor smoking altogether.
Tip #6: Avoid VOC-Containing Products
VOCs are commonly found in wood preservatives, aerosol sprays and household cleaners. As we saw above, volatile organic compounds can have dangerous effects on our health. Studies have found that VOC levels can be two to five times higher indoors compared to outdoors (14).
It’s essential to steer clear of products containing VOCs. However, this can be tricky since VOCs can be different ingredients. Here are a few ingredients to look out for:
- Methylene chloride: Commonly found in paint strippers and aerosol sprays.
- Benzene: Found in stored fuels, paint supplies and tobacco smoke.
- Perchloroethylene: Most often used in dry cleaning processes.
The EPA advises that if you need to use products containing VOCs, you should try the following:
- Buy limited quantities.
- Limit exposure.
- Throw away unneeded containers safely, even if partially full.
- Follow label instructions (15).
Tip #7: Keep Air-Cleaning Devices Clean
Air purifiers and other air-cleaning devices work hard at improving your indoor air. However, they can also do the opposite. If you don’t maintain filtered air-cleaning devices, contaminants can be released back into the air.
Follow the instructions on how to properly clean the filters. If the filters require replacement, write the dates down to remember when it’s needed.
Tip #8: Avoid Pesticides
Having pests such as cockroaches or ants in your home can be frustrating. But it’s wise to reconsider before reaching for the pesticides. Pesticides contain dangerous chemicals that can be harmful to children or sensitive individuals.
Instead of using pesticides, you can try different approaches to keep pests away. You can do this by blocking possible entrances where pests can enter and keeping food closed off. Avoid leaving trash for extended periods and clean up food debris.
Tip #9: Beware of Asbestos
If you’re renovating an old house, you must beware of asbestos. As we explained above, it can be very dangerous to your health when inhaled. You must take the right safety precautions when handling asbestos materials or consider hiring a professional.
You must also be wary about maintaining asbestos materials properly and avoid damaging them.
Tip #10: Ventilate Gas Appliances
Gas appliances such as water heaters and stoves, need to be properly installed and ventilated. Carbon monoxide is commonly emitted by gas appliances that aren’t vented properly. So it’s crucial to get the appliance checked regularly to ensure there’s no carbon monoxide leak.
To further ensure you and your family are safe, you can install a carbon monoxide detector. These devices will monitor carbon monoxide levels, and if levels reach a certain limit it will sound an alarm.
Tip #11: Clean After Pets
Although we love our pets, whether you have a young pup, grown cat or a cheeky parrot, it’s important to clean after them. Pets shed a significant amount of dander as they scratch themselves or move around. This can trigger allergies or even asthma.
It’s essential to vacuum the area where your pet spends most of its time, such as where they sleep. Wash bedding, toys and brushes — anything that can’t be washed you can place in plastic bags and freeze them. This will get rid of other allergens as well, such as dust mites.
Tip #12: Use a HEPA-Filtered Vacuum
Vacuuming your home regularly is an effective way to keep your home clean. However, depending on your vacuum, you could be causing more harm than good. An improperly filtered vacuum can release a significant amount of particles back into the air.
Always choose a vacuum with a HEPA filter. This will trap particles as tiny as 0.3 microns and will keep the particles from reentering the air.
Tip #13: Dispose of Your Garbage Properly
Keeping full trash bags inside the house can spread germs and affect air quality. Old food debris will attract pests such as mice, cockroaches and ants. Mold is also likely to grow on rotting food.
Tip #14:. Keep It Clean and Tidy
Dust and other pollutants can quickly build up in different areas of an untidy room. It’s important to get rid of unwanted items to minimize areas where dust can accumulate. Furthermore, by vacuuming and mopping regularly, you can effectively remove dust and other allergens.
It’s also smart to place a doormat at the entrance to limit the amount of dirt and dust that comes inside. A doormat might even act as a gentle reminder for guests to remove their shoes when entering.
Tip #15: Test Your Air
You might be taking all the right steps to better your indoor air, but something is still off. The best way to know what could be lurking in your air is by testing it. You can hire professionals to run a few tests to see what is bothering you and how to eliminate it.
Cleaning Air Naturally — What Works?
Now that we know what you can do to improve the air in your home, it’s time to take a look at some popular natural air purifiers. As people become more aware of how polluted our indoor air can be, we begin to look to other sources for purification.
However, “natural” doesn’t necessarily mean it’s safe. In fact, there are a few popular methods that are big no-no’s.
Many homeowners use scented candles to add a subtle scent to the home instead of using air fresheners or sprays. However, not all scented candles are beneficial — it’s crucial to choose carefully.
Candles are usually made with paraffin wax, which burns clean and for long. However, paraffin wax does produce a number of harmful byproducts as it burns (16).
Therefore, we like to only use beeswax candles — these are natural and don’t produce any harmful toxins.
Keep in Mind
Himalayan salt lamps come with a range of enticing promises. These include claims of being able to boost your mood and ease allergies and asthma. But experts say you should think twice before giving in to these promises.
There are also a lot of fake Himalayan salt lamps sold online. These are hard to break and give a bright light. However, the real ones have a dimmed glow and are very fragile.
Brands claim that these lamps will attract allergens, pollutants and toxins while releasing negative ions. However, there’s no scientific evidence that Himalayan salt lamps are beneficial to one’s health. In fact, veterinarians warn against having one of these lamps if you have cats.
Cats are attracted to the warm glow of the salt lamp and tend to lick it. This leads to sodium poisoning, which can cause vomiting, pain, seizures and death. A cat named Ruby in New Zealand nearly died after licking her owner’s salt lamp (17).
Activated charcoal or carbon is commonly used in air purifiers as a filter. This natural substance can absorb odors as well as harmful gases such as VOCs (18).
We highly recommend using activated charcoal to purify your air, but it’s important to replace filters regularly. These filters will usually last around three to six months, depending on usage and air quality.
According to NASA, houseplants are one of the most effective ways to clean your indoor air. Furthermore, NASA claims that specific plants can lower carbon monoxide, benzene, trichloroethylene and formaldehyde levels (19).
Having one plant per 100 square feet of your home will also assist in your breathing. Plants recycle carbon dioxide through photosynthesis, creating fresh air for us to breathe. Certain plants like beautiful orchids and succulents will absorb carbon dioxide during the day, and release oxygen during the night (20).
What Should You Choose?
There are many ways to improve your indoor air quality. However, it’s important to do proper research before choosing a method. Remember, some natural methods are more of a theory than truth, such as beeswax candles. If you want to try natural methods, we recommend that you try activated charcoal filters or add a few colorful houseplants.
Breathing In, Breathing Out
Since our homes are becoming more energy-efficient, they tend to trap more pollutants inside.
We may not realize it, but parts of our daily routines or habits can have harmful effects on the air we breathe.
Health risks vary depending on the pollutant, exposure and duration of exposure. Simple changes to your daily routine, such as airing out the house, can improve the air significantly.
Other times you’ll need a little help from air purifiers or dehumidifiers to see or feel any changes. We highly recommend that you try some natural ways to better your air, such as adding a few houseplants.