A Breath of Fresh Air

Flushing new cabinets with fans and open windows can help remove toxins like formaldehyde.

There’s nothing like a breath of fresh air, especially on one of those rare mornings following an overnight storm that scoured the valley, purging the smog and ushering in sharp, clear vistas. It usually doesn’t take long for the views to soften again as particulates, chemicals, exhaust and other contaminants begin to reestablish the haze. Addressing the issue of air pollution is important to our health and to our environment. Surprisingly, the best opportunity to improve our air quality is often indoors.

One reason indoor air quality is so important is that, on average, we are now spending 90% or more of our time inside buildings. Whether we’re home, at school, at work or elsewhere, most of the air we take deep into our lungs is part of the indoor environment. As we strive to improve energy efficiency, we’re creating “tighter” buildings with less air infiltration. Proper and efficient ventilation is increasingly important since indoor air quality can be up to five times worse than it is outside.

Some newly-constructed, energy-efficient homes have automatic fresh air ventilation built into the mechanical systems. They may also use healthier building materials that reduce chemical exposure from paint, adhesives, carpets, cabinets and other sources. The most responsible builders are taking these steps. Older homes are often “leaky” so it’s easier for air to get in and out (at least when the wind is blowing). This sort of uncontrolled ventilation might help improve air quality at times, but it will certainly not improve the quality of the utility bills!

Combustion by-products can be a serious source of indoor air pollution. Gas appliances, including furnaces, stoves, dryers, fireplaces and water heaters can be dangerous if not properly installed, vented and maintained. Garages are typically filled with dangerous chemicals, from oil and gas to paint, solvents and pesticides. The air barrier between the house and garage is very important. A good home energy auditor trained in building science can help identify and offer solutions to these issues.

There are numerous other ways to improve indoor air quality, no matter the age of one’s home. It doesn’t take an auditor to know that smoking is a major source of indoor air pollution. Or, have you ever noticed when someone is painting their nails? Of course you have, because the odor of those dangerous volatile organic compounds is unmistakable. Other personal care products, from shampoo to hair spray can release toxins into the air. Make informed purchasing decisions and seek healthy options. Read labels and try to avoid anything with ingredients you can’t pronounce or don’t understand.

Cleaning products are also a major source of indoor air pollution. Spraying the counter with some cleaners will immediately raise the dangerous chemical content in the air. Most household products are designed to smell ok even though they may be very unhealthy. Natural cleaners like vinegar and baking soda can do wonders, accomplishing most daily cleaning tasks without any toxic side effects. Add a some lemon to really freshen things up!

Perhaps you’ve suffered from the effects of poor indoor air quality but never made the connection to the cause. Common symptoms include headaches, dizziness, or fatigue, or irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat. Asthma is another disease that can be exacerbated by indoor air problems. Awareness is the best defense. Making a definitive connection between a specific symptom and a specific source of pollution is rare, but adopting an overall plan to improve indoor air quality can lead to noticeable improvement in health and comfort.

Green living is really a series of lifestyle choices. It looks different for each of us, since the decisions are often very personal. It can sometimes be difficult to change our ways, but just as often, we can easily make informed choices that improve our lives and heal our environment. So take a deep breath, relax and think about what’s next for you and those you care about.

Additional Resources:

The Environmental Protection Agency: Indoor Air Quality.